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Inner work, outer effort

The process of realizing dreams or bringing creative projects to life is always a balance between internal and external work.

This is, for me, a distinction between dreams and goals. Goals and goal setting always has this kind of aggressive rah-rah quality of articulating a specific, measurable goal, giving yourself a deadline, and Doing All The Things to get that shit done. Lose ten pounds by Christmas! Sell a million copies by April 2020! Get married and have a kid by…ech.

I used to love goals. But honestly, after My Lost Year, focusing on outcomes and taking on arbitrary, anxiety-provoking deadlines no longer resonates. Too much stuff has gone sideways in my life for me to feel okay within the rigid structure of goals.

But I do have dreams and very clear aspirations, some of which come with specific timelines. And I know these things will change me on some deep, alchemical level. Because the juicy stuff always does.

Dreams bump you up against all your stuff: limiting beliefs, unprocessed pain, and your own individual cosmic curriculum of lessons and areas for growth. They also take a lot of hard, boots-on-the-ground work.

Dream doing always involves efforting on the inside and the outside.

Which is why getting attached to goal-like outcomes is a dangerous gig. You may think that, say, writing your screenplay is about starting your career as a professional screenwriter and selling your first script. But this project may be actually about developing a writing practice and learning to self-promote. The outcome of selling a script is your (and your ego’s) idea of what this project is ‘for,’ but your cosmic curriculum might be different.

So, let’s just jump over to the idea of a cosmic curriculum (and I promise I’ll stop using that term).

We all have a path. Whether it was determined before we arrived on the planet or whether it’s being written as it’s being lived is really irrelevant. You are here to be, do, and learn very specific things. You don’t get a course syllabus printed out for you at the beginning of life. You find out about your assignments as you live them out.

And, once again, we continually bump up against our ego as we move through our assignments, who has definite opinions about what should be on the curriculum: fame! loads of money! sexy brunch every Sunday! easily identifiable markers of success which come at regular and predictable intervals!

This is why we’re so baffled when our expectations aren’t met by the outcomes of our projects and dreams…because we believe our egos to be in line with our path.

What we seek are outcomes. What we get is growth.

Case in point: In 2011, about a year after I arrived in New York, I did a long run of a show I made. My intention, and my material need at the time, was to make money. Our goal was to sell tickets and get paid. That didn’t happen. Throughout the seven weeks of the run, I freaked out about how we were failing to achieve our goals. I was so obsessed with how much or how little revenue we were bringing in that I couldn’t see the true function of this production.

Over the course of the run, we attracted something like 20 or 30 reviews. Everything from major news outlets to well respected magazines to bloggers moved to write about the work. This? Is unheard of.

One reviewer attended what ended up being a private, one-on-one performance. Before the show started, I was devastated and crushed there was no one in the audience but her. But that show turned out to be the single most intimate, magical performance I’ve ever done in my life.

The purpose and results of that production, while not ones I sought, formed the perfect set-up for what came in the two years following: big international tours that relied heavily on our press coverage for their success, and the beginnings of me learning to actually trust the process.

Often the roadblocks we encounter come from ‘inside the house.’

A need to inhabit a new, leadership role can force you to look at old, unresolved feelings of unworthiness. These feelings must be worked through or you can’t fully become a leader. The inner work is necessary for the outer work to get done.

These moments of internal effort often have the effect of pausing progress or activity on the external level. Which can be provoking. It might make you feel like the internal work is a distraction or taking you off course. It might feel like a waste of time. I assure you, it’s as much a part of the success of this project as any other effort.

The key is to be aware of what’s happening.

I was just part of another project where the intended outcome was money. Money, however, was the last thing that was coming to us. What came instead were communication problems, interpersonal confusion, and frustration. Finally, I realized I needed to let go of the money outcome completely and focus in on understanding what the actual (larger, deeper) purpose of this project was. When I did, I saw that I needed shift into a heart-centered place of compassion and serve the project from that place. I stepped into a spiritual leadership role I had neither acknowledged or fulfilled in my quest for dollars.

Then, of course, everything in the project started to flow—the external work could progress unabated because the internal work had been done.

So much of the personal and spiritual progress I’ve made in my life is thanks to my biggest dreams and creative endeavors. My dreams have asked me to face deep-seated fears and the way I keep myself small. These are not self-help side-projects—they’re necessary for moving forward with the project at hand.

Think of them as assignments within the larger assignments of our dreams.

The beauty of realizing dreams is not that we get to check a box that something got done or achieved. The real purpose and value of pursuing our dreams is that they ask us to grow as human beings. Dreams and creative work will always offer us opportunities for hard work where we roll up our sleeves and get things done. But they’ll also offer us the vulnerable, foundation-layer opportunity to look at ourselves and transform ways we don’t expect, but deeply need.

What is your dream asking of you now? How does it want you to grow?

On having a backup plan

As a young artist, my dad always used to encourage me to have a fallback plan. The deeper I got into my creative work, the more looming this nebulous thing became.


What did it mean?

I assumed it meant there was no effing way I’d make a living in theatre and dance. Or it meant that I would probably fail, so I should have something else ready to occupy my time and pay the bills.

Over the years, it got so I wasn’t able to think about my creative passions without Plan B sidling up beside it, like a plus-one at a party. I didn’t necessarily invite the backup plan, but there it was, drinking rum punch.

Eventually, that connection solidified even more. Like: if I am creating, then a backup plan must be present.

This caused a series of problems.

First, it assumed that the creative work was not the backup plan. That these were two distinct, and probably antagonistic, entities. It implied that the backup plan would pay the bills and the creative work would not. And buried in all of that was the assumption that paying bills should be part of my creative work’s job description in the first place.

But, should it?

In the history of Melanie Makes Art, which began when I was a toddler, making money has almost never been part of the motivation, drive, and urgency to express my human experience in various forms.

Granted, Paying Bills becomes prevalent in life at a certain point. But why did it get suddenly and fervently get mushed together with creativity like an incredibly high-stakes blind date? Jane, meet Susan. Susan, meet Jane. You two will be moving in together now.

This doesn’t mean income can’t be part of the motivation to do creative work, or that motivations can’t change over time. But the danger comes when unconscious associations happen in our brains without our consent. Beliefs like these limit us in ways we aren’t aware of, because we can’t even see them. We don’t know they’re operating or how they got in.

And yet: there they are.

Somewhere along the way, Art + Backup Plan got linked in my brain. And Money was the unexamined bassline rumbling underneath it all.

So, for fun, let’s just sit for a moment and give a new idea some space:

Creativity can exist separately from a backup plan.

God, what could it mean for us?

If our creative work was free from backup plannery:

  • We could just do our creative work. Like, actually focus on it. Without feeling like we’ve left the stove on or forgotten our kid in a Target parking lot.
  • We might feel super motivated to kick all kinds of ass.
  • We might also discover we’re terrified. That the backup plan was our security blankie and, now that it’s gone, we’re really wigged out.
  • We might feel pressure. Uh oh, we’re actually on the hook for producing something.
  • The problem of paying bills would still exist and still be a thing we need to figure out. But it’s over there now. A little further away, like at least three inches.
  • We might feel lighter and looser, or we might feel untethered and lost.
  • We might fail at our creative thing and be mortally embarrassed and/or disappointed.

Okay. So nobody dies from cutting the lil’ imaginary umbilical cord between Dreams and Plan Bs. The sky does not fall. The earth’s crust does not crack.

But all of our problems don’t suddenly solve themselves, either.

In fact, we may have more problems. Raw feelings like fear and pressure to produce and vulnerability. Which might attract some tag-along barnacles like resistance and futility. We might have to encounter failure. And then we might wonder what the point of creative work is.

So, it’s worth acknowledging that we actually get some pay-off from this backup plan thing.

Plan B keeps a whole lot of complication at bay. It lets you have one foot in and one foot out of your dreams. It allows you not to fully commit, or to risk, or to fail. It’s a back-alley permission slip to not be 100% authentically you and, as a bonus, you get to blame someone else for it! Thanks Dad. Your backup plan crap kept me from being a really successful artist.

Oh dear.

Now, what the hell do you do?

For my money, you find a really comfy spot on the couch and settle in for a spell. Because this is officially A Lot To Process. In unpacking the unexamined connections between Plan B and your dream, you’ve also had to confront a bunch of big feelings about letting those two things be separate, and in the process realized that the payoff from not fully committing to your creative stuff may be holding you back, but that committing to it might mean failure and humiliation.

Here, have a muffin. Still warm.


So, here’s the real stuff. I only personally know one or two artists (and by know, I mean, like, I’ve met them in person a couple of times) who don’t have something resembling a side gig, day job, or patchwork of various forms of hustle in addition to their artistic practice. In fact, even the artists I know who can live off their art and solely their art still earn income from projects that are more work-for-hire than their own pristine artistic vision.

There is no Artist Rule Book in which it’s stated: Thou art not a real artist if thou hast a side gig.

So, reframing the backup plan as a standard issue day job is a possible strategy.

But. It’s not really about that, is it?

It’s about the commitment piece. Fully inhabiting your unruly, creative, authentic self. Without reserve. Both feet in. No backup plan.

There is no fallback to being 100% You.

Even though being you is, at times, terrifying, expensive, confusing, complicated, inconvenient, upsetting, boring, exhilarating, unappetizing, exhausting, and about sixty-seven other very descriptive words.

Can I posit here that it’s not your creative work that needs to be divested from the heavy burden of The No-Fail QuikPay Securify Backup Plan 2000, but…you?

That your trembling, beautiful, tender-unfurling-leaf of a self just needs to be allowed some real breathing room? Without the pressure to deliver or perform? That you get to be an artist because you say you’re an artist and that self-defining is your right (and possibly your superpower)? And that the expansive, airy quality of running around naked with no backup plan has its own unexpected payoff, I promise?

You as naked, authentic person might fail. You might feel pain, or you might cause it. You might fully commit to a thing that just stops appealing to you at a certain point along the way. You might change your mind seventy-eight times. You might have dozens of false starts and never get a project off the ground and give up completely and sell the farm and dye your hair green and say fuck it all, I’m going to live on a boat and homeschool my children.

All of this is totally okay. I believe it’s what scientists call Living.

But, we can choose to live without burdening ourselves unnecessarily. And punishing ourselves for not carrying that weight “well.”


Set it down. Let’s go skinny dipping.


Peeking under the hood: on avoidance

I have a friend going through divorce right now, and the money thing is really messing her up. So much so that she finds herself falling asleep inches from her laptop with The Sopranos playing because she’s terrified of giving her mind any space. Give that thing an inch, she thinks, and that core fear, that horrible anxiety, those whispers about security and scarcity will turn into an impossible roar.

We are so afraid of What’s Down There that we avoid looking at ourselves at all costs.

We think we’re irreparably damaged, filled with violent, chaotic pain that’s waiting to consume us. We’re terrified we’ll drown.

Oddly enough, this is how we know we’re getting somewhere.

If your ego (that sage, but stunted Protector Of The Status Quo) has the rabid dogs barking this close to your conscious mind, you’re closer to a breakthrough than you think. Remember the ego fights dirty and it fights to win. It will do anything and everything to survive because its survival means keeping everything the same. The big trouble is, your default impulse is growth. Progression. Evolution. Expansion.

This makes the ego really, really uncomfortable. So it blows up your core fears into giant fun house mirror monsters and goads you into turning away from change.

This cannot and will not work. You’re built for transformation. You are wired for spreading your freaking wings and taking flight. But, you’re also human. And our species has gotten a lot of mileage out of backing the eff away from suffering.

Let me set the scene.

So, your ego parks this barking, rabid dog by the door marked Obviously Where You Should Go Next. And you walk up to the door, get terrified, and walk away. Maybe you try again the next day, maybe you put if off ’til the weekend. But then weekend comes and you’re busy with kids, so you think: Monday, Monday. And you do sincerely, earnestly glance at that door again on Monday, but ugh, that dog is still there, and workstufflatelaundryblah. So you walk away. And you walk away. It really doesn’t take long, like a week maybe, before the walking away becomes stone-cold avoidance and you’re binge-watching Nurse Jackie, unable to deal with your life (*raises hand).

This will-I-or-won’t-I dynamic takes a lot of time and energy. It’s layered in with shame, self-recrimination, and accumulating feelings of failure. It’s sitting on top of a nice foundation of whatever core fear your friendly ego has poked and inflamed. Avoidance bleeds outward from the original problem or situation and takes over everything. And the net result is a massive and painful disconnection with yourself.

Because, my darling, you are all of these things. The transformation, the fear, the urge, the avoidance, all of it. And it’s okay.

The solution is not a large thing. (It never is, by the way.) It’s a tiny, tiny thing. It’s to sit down right now wherever you are (and okay, if you can’t sit, just do it standing in line at the bank or hanging one-handed from the monkey bars) and take five big, beautiful, mindful breaths. Right now. Do it. I know “it’s stupid” but do it anyway.

Good. Thank you.

And now I want to you to do The Next Small Thing, which is probably something like Drink A Glass Of Water or Rip Your Eyeballs Away From Instagram And Get In The Car Because You Are For-Real Late. Do that thing and then there will be the next one, which is Eat Something Green or Notice The Blossoming Trees As You Walk or Respond To That Email Where You Have To Say No To Someone.

Start to notice that your day is full of these moments and micro-choices.

And that the dynamic of stuckness and panicking on the other end of stuckness doesn’t have to run your day. It doesn’t have to be insurmountable. You can dismantle avoidance by pressing gently on the gas when you feel your body or your intuition or your alarm clock say, ‘It’s time.’ You can soften its edges by busting out five big-ass breaths. You can allow yourself to fail at these small things and live to tell the tale. You can bring an element of curiosity to the whole gig and ask, ‘What if?’ before, say, letting yourself go for an aimless meandering walk instead of timeboxing your life into efficient oblivion.

And once you’ve built up a nice résumé of accomplishments like Ate Lunch Before 3pm/Contemplating Murder and Responded To Passive-Aggressive Text Message, you can glance over at that door again. And that dog.

Oh! I should tell you. That dog isn’t actually there.

Take a pink rubber eraser and squeak-squeak-squeak that thing out. Imaginary dog. Made-up bullshit. Never existed. Good, okay. Now, look at that door. The one marked Obviously Where You’re Headed Next. And contemplate this idea:

Whenever you approach a new level of development, you must pass through a threshold.

This threshold might require you to jettison some old belief structure that doesn’t jive with the incoming new world order, or you may need to address some old fears or traumas that have held you back. This is a rite of passage, pay-the-piper kind of thing.

It’s not the funnest thing in the world, I recognize. But this is Growth in a nutshell. You outgrow a skin, and you have to shed it. Old pain, outdated beliefs, unworkable fears…these are the skins you peel off as you progress.

All this to say, while there is no frothing canine guarding the door, there may be a bit of discomfort ahead. But, you’re good for it. Because it’s no more discomfort than some of the other line items on your résumé: Setting Boundaries With An Unreasonable Five-Year-Old, Going To That Divorce Mediation Meeting, Looking The Cashier In The Eye While Paying With Food Stamps.

Avoidance is an attempt to escape pain.

But, we are humans, so pain is inevitable. It’s just that our imaginations get out of control and we imagine our pain to be much larger and more overwhelming than it needs to be. We can practice taking tiny doses of discomfort one at a time, and witnessing ourselves succeed at them. Sitting Down To Meditate Even Though It’s Been Two Weeks Months. Turning Off Netflix And Going To Bed. Making Actual Dinner. Using Your Hand To Pick Up A Journal Instead Of A Smartphone. Trying Just Trying To Forgive.

These are not tiny, pointless things in the face of some massive ordeal.

This is movement and momentum. This is building strength. This is witnessing your own power. This is loving the wholeness of yourself. This…is progress.

What are you avoiding right now? What skin do you need to shed in order to grow? Share in the comments below.

Stepping into the fray

I didn’t want to meditate this morning. I’ve been doing this meditation practice with ice lately, training myself to focus in the presence of discomfort. It’s not pleasant (that’s the point), but it’s effective, and I moved around my house in the space before entering discomfort with that cagey resistance that most of us know really well.

I knew I had to go in, but I wished that I didn’t.

I did the practice, and that cagey resistance was waiting again on the other side when it came to going for a walk. It’s a perfect spring day—I don’t know what my problem was. Sometimes, I resist the best things for the dumbest reasons. I went for my walk and I passed a polling station and I wondered if part of that dodgy vibe I’m picking up is because today is the NY primary and a lot of people are on serious tenterhooks. This whole country is, when you think about it.

It feels like a verge we’d never be on, but here we are.

And aren’t we always here? In one way or another?

That cagey resistance is part of my every day. So is that feeling of being on the verge. Of being one step away from a fray I’m always going to have to enter.

And there’s a feeling of wanting to run and hide, but also a feeling of not wanting that at all. This subtle, internal push-pull locks me up and makes it all much harder than it needs to be. Most times the answer is to just do the thing. Stop fretting at the side of the pool and get in already. It’ll only be cold for a second.

This is how it is with change. We know it’ll be uncomfortable—we’re not stupid. But, we forget that’s not the point.

The discomfort isn’t what we’re choosing, it’s the change.

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like a choice, though. It feels like you’re forced into a situation of sinking or swimming and maybe you resent the part of it you didn’t choose. But, you’re here, in the water, so you’d best get on with things. I felt that way when I got divorced. I didn’t want to be single, but the person I was married to was leaving, and that’s just what was happening. Resistance hung me up for awhile, but eventually I understood that I needed to set about choosing how I wanted to be single because that’s what I was now.

Same with the miscarriages. Same with every time depression comes to call.

And honestly? Same with every day I wake up and resist the practices that are keeping me alive. Every time I face down some Big New Something like moving or really learning to be an ally or trying to get pregnant again.

We’re always on the verge. We’re always stepping into the fray.

We’re always making that giant choice to face What Is and act without knowing how things will turn out.

I want to acknowledge that in you. Because sometimes what might seem like the Tiniest Nothing Thing, like, do I wear a dress today? is the opposite of tiny. Ask any transgendered person. And sometimes what we’re facing down is speaking the truth in the face of oppression or acting directly against accepted ways of existing. Sometimes, there could be consequences that are really painful, and that’s the risk we’re taking when we step in.

That cagey resistance thinks it’s trying to save our lives. But it doesn’t actually have that power.

The only thing that will save us is to walk right off the edge and see what happens on the way down.

You can’t stay on the edge forever. It doesn’t actually work that way because that edge isn’t safe. There are scary consequences there, too. Which isn’t to say There Is No Safe Space. It’s just not where you think.

The safest place you can be is at the moment mid-step when your foot has left resistance, your weight has shifted, and gravity is pulling you toward What Is.

That moment of free-fall is the safest place in the world.

What are you resisting right now? What’s waiting for you on the other side? Share in the comments below.

The air we breathe

I realized the big dream of my life eight years ago this month. I traveled to Paris, solo, to write. The intention was to immerse myself in artistry in a city that had captured my heart and soul ten years before—and to change my own life. I knew I was supposed to be an artist. I knew that’s who my true, authentic self needed to be.

I finally let her.

But, when I got home (a small city in Western Canada), everything fell apart. The re-entry was rough. I no longer fit in my own life. I was stifled. I didn’t know how to bring my Paris self into my world back home. Depression moved in.

I remember one night, unable to sleep, I slipped out of bed and went to the room I used as an office. I was desperate, reeling and coming unhinged. I didn’t know what to do. I reached for my journal and tried to write my way to clarity. As I wrote, I began to combust with a blinding, white rage. I collapsed on the floor, ripping at the pages of the journal, gripping its hardback cover with white knuckles, and tearing the book in half.

I sobbed and sobbed, on my knees, ruined journal still in my hands. I was lost.

There are times when we see with devastating clarity that our dreams—our authentic selves—refuse to stay quiet. We understand that marginalizing them and making them small is killing us. We feel the rage take over. Our bodies rebel. It’s terrifying.

But, what did we expect?

That our true selves would tolerate being shoved aside? That day jobs and dinner parties and placid status quos would satisfy the wild, unbridled, creative spirits we are?

It doesn’t work.

We are uncontainable and we will not abide.

Oh god, I wish we could. I long to be satisfied by a straight-ahead life. I wish I wanted what The Other People seem to want. Martha Graham called this a blessed unrest, but how difficult it is to remember the blessedness.

I’m so sorry. You’re going to have to live your dreams and inhabit your authentic self. No matter how inconvenient or uneconomical. No matter how much strife it may cause. No matter whose feelings you hurt.

You have to.

Your authenticity is the oxygen your body requires.

There’s nothing more to it than that. And so you must, without knowing how any of it will work out or what ruination may await, get yourself into a studio. You must write your poems. You must finish your film. You must let your insatiable curiosity gorge itself on the world.

You must, as I just did, bear the annual crisis of faith when you file your taxes and see how little you made and how much you spent on your creative work, your self-care.

See moments like this as reckonings with the true cost of your survival.

They are.

This isn’t to say you’ll never make money at your passions. That’s beside the point. The point is, the world was not built for the wild-haired creatures of light that we are and that costs us something. We learn to bear it or, better yet, budget it in.

Without it, you don’t exist. You go dry and curled at the edges. You become a husk. You fade. Your rage sets you on fire and eats you alive.

There is nothing wrong with you.

God, I want to scream it. There is nothing wrong with you.

You are a precious flicker of light. A candle in the vast blanket of bland darkness. Your anger is real and it’s true. Your pain, your hunger, I believe them. Your longings are a bread crumb path out of prison. Follow them. Please. Suck in the breath of air you so desperately need. Let your rage burn down the walls that contain you. Know that many of us are where you are, or have been, or will be. And that becoming yourself, while done alone, is not done in isolation.

Claiming space for yourself claims it for all of us. The benevolent colonization of an empire of secret gardens, tangled woods. A country built of light and clean breath. A place where we can live.

How has your authentic self asserted itself in your life? How did you respond? Share your stories in the comments below.


Losing your lower self

Dreams are a lot of work.

You’re outside your comfort zone—raw, naked, vulnerable. And you’re working your ass off for something that’s a risk. Maybe it’s utterly new or scarily costly or dangerous to your physical safety. Maybe it’s not supported well by your friends or your spouse or, say, a consumerist, productivity-obsessed culture that eats human souls for tapas.

You’re dangling in the wind and hustling like a mofo all the livelong day.

That shit? Is taxing.

That’s not quite all, though is it? It’s tax season. Your lease is up in a couple months. Your bathroom sink just sprung an objectively fantastic leak. You have to bake 26 gluten-free, peanut-pristine cupcakes by 7:35 a.m. Your boss is crawling directly up your butthole. Your internet connection sucks, and you slept approximately 3.7 hours last night.

You’re TIRED, man.

Ah. But, wait, there’s more. You’re a perfectionist, albeit a recovering one. You’re introverted and sensitive. Your self-esteem could be better (thanks, childhood trauma). Your recurring back injury is threatening to recur, along with your recurring alcoholism. And today, at some point, a subtle or unsubtle combination of the world’s shittiest trifecta—capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy—will come over and slap you in the mouth.

Have we hit exhaustion? Oh, yeah. I think we’re there.

So, does anyone blame you for making out with a pint of chocolate ice cream and six consecutive episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

No, we freaking don’t.

It’s just that you do it every day. Or, at least, more often than you’d like. Enough that your Internal Okayness Monitor is on orange alert. We’re not at red, yet, thank god. But we’re way beyond that peaceful, lagoony bluey-green right now.

When pushed to the limit, we take refuge in our lower selves.

We do the things we know aren’t healthy or helpful. We skip out on self-care. I have been known to actively resent the things I know will help me, like meditation or exercise or looking on the bright side. Sometimes, I just want to be angry and blamey and victimy for awhile.

Sometimes, my pain and rage needs to be heard. And seen.

And sometimes, I need to eat an entire pie. (Pumpkin. With whipped cream. Screw you.)

There’s a subtle connection here with last week’s post on surrender, and I think the common element is that vibrating tension of rage. We work so damn hard on so many levels, and it doesn’t get acknowledged. Not really. Not enough.

So, let’s start with that.

I acknowledge you.

I see you girding your loins and stepping out of safety every single day. I see the risk you take in being who you are. Fighting to use a public bathroom. Doing what’s best for your kids amid judgement and ridicule. Dealing with bullshit microaggressions while launching your new career. Walking the tight rope of “wellness” and the razor’s edge of paying rent.

I see the battles you wage and the risks you take on behalf of your highest, most divine self. And I see the world undermine you and tear at you with its claws.

I see you. I hear you. I feel you.

And even though you feel terribly, desperately alone, and like the hits come from all directions at all times, I’m with you. We’re with you. There’s a whole lot of us. We’re here and we’re watching. Allies. Fellow travellers. Wounded healers, all.

We don’t see you as a freak making life harder on yourself. We see a valiant hero, slashing through the tangled woods.

Now, let yourself rest.

We’ll watch over you while you sleep. Trust us. Imagine that we’ve formed a circle around you, facing out. This is your protection. Here, we’ve gathered some lovely soft leaves for you. Your only job, and I know it’s not that easy, is to let yourself rest.

You know the effects of chronic stress. Of a body always in a state of fight or flight. You also know, intuitively and implicitly, that you can’t go on like this indefinitely.

So, in whatever form that takes, explore the experience of deep rest. Let down your guard for a moment. Sink into it. Like the softest blanket. Rest.

And, when it’s time, eat a piece of fruit.

Something bracing and alive. Like grapefruit or a cold strawberry just from the fridge. Something with that green, awake flavor that seems to contain all of life vibrating inside it.

Now, drink a glass of water. Drink it all the way down until the glass is empty.

Let these things cleanse you from the inside and trust that’s what they’re doing because they are.

See this not as a “healthy snack” but as a sacred ritual. A freshening. A conscious newness. An intentional act in the face of the world’s ridiculous, random folly.

This small offering is a link connecting you with Life and Earth. That which you are. Pure. Unfettered. Part of the larger organism of oceans and plateaus, one-celled creatures and herds of elephants. Fellow travelers. Wounded healers. The heartbeat that started when you were a tiny secret in the womb. Part magic, part carbon, part electricity.

And now, you rise.

The edge of surrender

I call the year spanning from July 2014 to June 2015 My Lost Year. During that time, I had two miscarriages and two chemical pregnancies (miscarriages that happen so early, it’s like you weren’t even pregnant at all, but ah, you were, you were, you swear you were).

My body, mind, emotions, and spiritual sensibilities were chopped and churned. There was so much blood, so much confusion, so much pain. My memory of that year is shot—I cannot place anything in time, even now. The phrase ‘I’ve blocked it out’ is apropos, though that implies some kind of conscious choice in the blocking, which doesn’t feel like the case.

A year of my life was just gone.

I emerged from that time broken and enraged. I felt like a failure, and like I’d been robbed. After enduring all that suffering and loss, the world owed me a baby for God’s sake. I was a blood-soaked warrior, kneeling in the killing field, screaming pointlessly into the sky.

But I live in New York City. And pointless screaming, while common, doesn’t go over.

What I didn’t know then was that the very end of my rope was the perfect place to be: a potent moment of pure potential disguised as hopelessness, loss, and rage.

I was on the threshold of surrender.

Surrender gets a bad rap. Many of us were told early in life that a “quitter” wasn’t something you wanted to be. Failure was also terrible and to be avoided at all costs. Actually, any kind of poor judgment or lack of ability to predict the future was frowned upon. (You should have known better…) Really, what you wanted was to get everything right on the first try, stick with it, and succeed at all times.

But, we don’t always succeed in the conventional way. I’m stating the obvious, but is it, actually, that obvious? That we really don’t know, going in, what will happen or how things will turn out? That we’re often so obsessed with getting something right, we’re blind to the ways in which we’re getting it wrong?

And that the harder we struggle to reach our desired outcome, the further away that dangling carrot gets?

It’s like a boxer getting their ass kicked, but they keep staggering to their feet, only to get knocked down again. And again. And again. Why does she keep getting up? Why not stay down? Or more to the point, why not just get out of the ring altogether? Get some ice on that eye. Have a hot bath, maybe some tea. Crawl into flannel jammies and call it a day already, sheesh.

We try so hard for so long that we make ourselves suffer. We effort and persevere and strive ourselves to death. Why?

We forgot how powerful we are in surrender.

In surrendering, you set yourself free. The outcome that had you in chains, and the struggle that locked you up further is gone. The ego you built up around achieving this thing vanishes. The identity you constructed, I Am The Person Who…, disappears. You become, in that moment, your true, expansive, and unlimited self.

Just by letting go. Just by saying, with every cell of your being, Uncle.

When you truly and actually surrender, you shed your small self and step into the largest version of who you are. The self that is open and vulnerable. Majestic and unencumbered. The one who can see things afresh, and is willing to embrace change.

Because that’s all that’s being asked for here at the edge of surrender.

Only change.

Things aren’t working. It’s time to try another way.

It’s so simple, but we complicate it. We make ourselves bleed. We make ourselves feel bad and wrong. We followed the rules to a T, but the rules screwed us over so fuck them and fuck you and fuck everyone in your apartment building and on your knitting team, too.

Hey, it’s okay.

It just isn’t working.

I don’t know why. Probably none of us do. It’s not the right time for one reason or another, or for no reason at all. It might never be the right time. So let’s back ourselves out of this box canyon and find something else to do.

This? Might be called failure. (And don’t we have a lot of baggage around that whole scene?) But it might also be called embracing what’s real.

The key here, and the hardest part, is to actually surrender.

Not just a little. Not for the afternoon. Not by keeping one foot in the door because maaaaaybe if you tweak your approach slightly and re-write the copy and work nights for another couple of weeks…no. I mean honestly and courageously face the fact that you and this particular thing are not working out, and let it go wholly and completely. For real.

Let your ego feel that punch to the solar plexus, that full-body oooof, and also that moment of free-fall afterward where a lot of existential room opens up under your feet and you plummet for a good long minute or two. (You might need to cry a little at this point. I support that 100%. Go ahead and let some pressure out of the tires.)

And then feel what happens next.

It might be a little like: in breath, out breath, blink. It might sound like a bird chirping or a taxi driving by. You might notice, say, the way the light falls on the sofa or how the woman across the room shifts in her seat.

That’s what surrender feels like. Grounded and free and simple. Like the present moment just flashed its boobies at you and smiled as if to say, “See? It’s not so bad here. We’ve got birds. We’ve got snacks. What took you so long?”

And what, oh powerful, surrendered one, do you want to do next?

Working with time

I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to work and time lately. Making time for creative work. Retreats as a way of moving forward quickly in a short amount of time. Multitasking as a concept. I’ve been in a number of vastly interesting situations, many of which are outside my preferred way of working, which is, in a nutshell: a little bit each day always toward a process-oriented deadline. Like, “I’d like to have my first draft done by X,” or “I’ve got an in-progress showing next month.”

This is my jam. However.

In the past several months, not only has my own lovely, spacious bubble has been popped, but I’ve had the opportunity to observe people in their natural habitats (all very different from my own), and to hear from you, my incredible readers, on a regular basis. What follows is the contemplative results of my observations and experiences in something like chronological order.

Lessons from illness

First, I was sick for two months straight. Not I’ve-got-the-sniffles sick, but laid out on the couch, and curled in a ball for the entirety of December and January. (Everything’s fine, don’t you worry for one second.) It sucked royally, but it gave me a peek into what it means to have seriously reduced capacity. I could not turn my illness off or control it in any way, so the idea of fitting work around it was impossible (and laughable). Meanwhile, I had a significant process deadline scheduled for the end of February, the first draft of a brand-new work, so I felt the pressure to get work done.

My creative work, paid work, and domestic labor depended on me grappling with the question, ‘How do I work while sick?’ Now. My experience was temporary—others living with chronic illness or disability, not so much. I know for a fact disabled artists have written far more eloquently on this subject than I, but the education of my experience is worth sharing.

Be okay with doing less.

Sometimes a lot less. Sometimes nothing.

Ask for help.

I thought I knew how to do this before. I was deeply wrong. This is a critical skill to learn, and keep learning.

Let shit go.

My house was a disaster for two months, I wore the same thing every single day, and no one had clean underwear. Meh. I also had to make difficult choices about which of my projects to focus on and which to (at least temporarily) let go.

Count on impermanence.

Illness, much like grief, is a state that tricks you into believing it will never end and there will be no reprieve. Stay extremely present and maximize Windows Of Wellness as they arise, however random and however brief.

Lessons from overwork

Next, I attended a staff retreat intended to root us in the big picture of the group’s mission and vision, and to collectively orient ourselves to our goals for 2016. The idea was to pluck us from our usual contexts and the demands of client work, so we could immerse ourselves in collaboration and creative thinking. The only trouble was, client work still had to be done.

Over the course of four days, billable hours gradually took over, shoving the juicy stuff into the margins. People stayed up late, hunched over their laptops until past midnight. Folks skipped out on retreat sessions because they had to prepare for client calls later in the day. Other people pinballed between priorities, never finishing one thing or the other. A bunch of us got sick after returning home. As I observed this process unfold, it reaffirmed my commitment to several things.

Multitasking doesn’t work.

For me, anyway. There’s research to back me up on this, but just watching people try to do it was exhausting—and trying to collaborate with people who were all over the place was crazymaking. Try working in focused chunks of time instead. (They can be short!)

Important before urgent.

If you do the urgent stuff first, you’ll fight fires all day and never get to what’s important to you. Dreams, big picture work, creative time; it all gets shoved to the bottom of the list unless you put it first in your day.

Self-care, self-care, self-care.

There were a couple of people who, as I put it, ‘managed their introversion well’ at the retreat. They took their alone time and made sure they made enough space to recharge. But for a lot of us, the pressure to engage and appear busy and “do” ourselves to death took a terrible toll.

Lessons from mindful immersion

After the work retreat, I went on a retreat for my own creative project with two collaborators. It was intense and immensely productive. It was also in the Rocky Mountains. We went in with a couple of intentions, but no plan. We rode the present moment, allowing it to reveal what was needed at any given time.

The result was pockets of incredibly deep work that emerged organically from a foundation and backdrop of self-care: we ate well, we meditated, we moved our bodies, we spent time outdoors, we watched ridiculous comedies, we rested. The whole 72 hours were spent attending to the present moment, nurturing our project, and offering our whole selves into the process.

Intensive work works.

For projects where your collaborators are far away, or if it’s difficult to do a little work every day, short bursts like retreats are an incredible way to focus deep and move forward quickly.

The process works.

There is absolutely no need to impose arbitrary plans or outcomes onto the process (assuming you paid attention to the urgent vs. important business from above). The process can be trusted to reveal exactly what is needed, and what process-based milestone is asking to be attended to next.

Get some distance.

The beauty of a retreat isn’t just the focused time on your project, it’s the perspective you gain on your regular life. Rather than just getting through the day, you step away, and see things clearly. What habits of action or thought need a re-set?

You gotta power down.

Staying aggressively present and committing to process with your whole self—physical, mental, spiritual, emotional—is hard freaking work. Laughter and lightness lets you come down and give your innards some actual rest. (Watch Magic Mike XXL. Seriously.)

Lessons from family

The re-entry from my retreat was all about family. I stayed with a friend who has two young kids, and then visited my parents for several days. I was reminded, yet again, that family time is full-on. It’s as intense as a retreat, and for folks with kids, that intensity never stops.

Some people can hustle both work and family at the same time, but I’m no longer satisfied with feeling fractured and pulled in too many directions. More and more, being fully in the here and now is the way for me to create a calm mind and good relationships.


Instead of tearing yourself apart about what’s not getting done and what boxes aren’t getting ticked, release completely into the present moment. Trust yourself.

Dwell in a place of love.

Take a step back and see what’s really important, what really endures, and what needs the full force of your heart center right now. Instead of struggle and tension, bring all your love to bear on a situation and watch what happens.

What have you learned about the relationship between work and time? Share your genius in the comments below!

Let yourself be

So often, we hold our dreams or authenticity or creative practice hostage. We tie them up, swing a naked bulb over their heads, and scream in their faces: GIMME ANSWERS.

We look for anchors in the storm, believing our dreams to be the storm.

We ask our creative work to pay our bills and rent, or else. We demand our nascent passions to achieve excellence no matter what, our creative meanderings to be going somewhere, leading to something. We force matters of the heart and soul to answer the question, “What is the point?”

Uncertainty isn’t the problem, adulting is

Somewhere along the way we were lied to.

Someone or a bunch of someones told us that being an adult means knowing things for sure. It means having a plan and making things happen. It means making a contribution, whether it’s financial, spiritual, or societal. It means delivering.

And yeah, as an adult human, you have to show up for Regular Life. You have to get yourself to work and pay the electric bill and make sure the kids are fed. You have to function. In spite of a lot of things, sometimes.

But you also need to understand where the practice, expectation, and skill set of being a grown-up ends. You need to know the places in which you can stop being so damned efficient. And Such A Good Person all the time.

The challenge is, once we wade into those waters—the murky spaces of self-care, creativity, authenticity, spiritual practice, and frivolous dreams of Thai cooking classes and adventures in Kenya—once we step off the adulthood assembly line, we’re quickly out of our depth.

We don’t know how to play for the sake of playing. We don’t know how to noodle. How to drift. How to let an idea or a poem or a moment just be, unfolding as it will, changing shape, and merely existing. We fear the open, rich potential of uncertainty.

We demand things have purpose. We look for measurable outcomes. We turn ideas into products and projects, and require immediate results. We drag the tender sprouts of our dreams back onto the assembly line as fast as we can.

But they refuse to go.

The rigor of allowing

Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

Allowing yourself to be in the open, unstructured space of creativity, intuition, and dreams is a practice. A rigorous practice. It’s a skill that artists understand implicitly and work extremely hard at. For decades.

Do not underestimate how challenging it is to be authentic.

For me, as an artist, that is the work.

Getting out of my own way and allowing the words, ideas, and images to flow through me and onto the page. Letting the weirdness be weird. Asking for it to be even more strange. More surprising. I want my work to tell me something I don’t know. To articulate something I didn’t know I felt. To clarify what it means to be alive in a way my Very Smart Rational Adult Brain just can’t with its to-do lists and timelines.

This, by the way, is why we love art and artists. This is why we crave adventure.

Not because it’s predictable or contained. Easily digestible. Rational. But because it stops us in our tracks with its wild honesty. It cuts us to the core. Makes us feel human and alive.

The practice of working in this open, surprising space is not easy.

(I mean, it was easy, when we were kids. But now, we’ve been adulting so long, we have to relearn all the kooky wonderful genius we had when we were seven.)

Recovering yourself

Michelangelo sculpted by removing the rock that wasn’t the statue. Read that again. The sculpture already existed, fully formed, within the block of stone. Michelangelo’s job wasn’t to create the work of art. It was to remove everything that wasn’t the work of art trying to get made.

Same goes for you.

It’s not about adding artistry. It’s about uncovering authenticity.

Your task is to rigorously, relentlessly remove everything that isn’t authentically you. This is vastly harder than it sounds.

And so to demand unreasonable and inappropriate things of your creative, dream-chasing self (have purpose! pay bills! serve the greater good!) works against this already-difficult job.

We’ll get to all that

If you haven’t already, go find the work of poet Nayyirah Waheed. Fall into her tiny droplets of image and feeling and wisdom, and swim around for an hour. This artist is deeply and irrevocably herself. She speaks from the center of her being and, you can feel it, writes to heal and understand her experience. The work’s authenticity is crystal clear.

But her impact goes way beyond that.

She answers questions I didn’t know I was asking. She articulates my humanity in ways that stun me. She opens me. She heals me.

The effect of her authenticity ripples out way beyond her.

We are all like this.

We don’t do it in the same way. We’re not all going to be famous or published poets. That part doesn’t matter in the least. We all have an impact that is much larger than ourselves. Regardless of whether we’re “professionals” at whatever it is we do.

Just by existing. Just be being you in the world. I urge you not to underestimate this.

Your impact is clarified and magnified by the work of becoming authentic. The intentional effort of allowing. The courage to step off the assembly line and into the murk. Of chipping away the stone that isn’t you.

This what we’re doing here, people.

This is what dreams are. What creativity does. What self-care facilitates. This is why it’s critical that you let yourself journal and experiment with writing plays. Why your futzing around with paints while the kids nap is deeply important. Why your longings for mountain peaks aren’t distractions, but necessary clues. Why that weird “thing” you doodled on a napkin isn’t something to be feared, but to be followed.

This—the studied practice of letting yourself be and do whatever the hell feels delicious and true—is the Why behind everything I write to you each week and the work I’m asking you with all my heart to do.

What is your authentic self asking you to do now? How can you allow this space and time enough to be? Share your thoughts in the comments below.