White Women Cake

Posted September 19th, 2017

For most of my life, I have been accused of being angry. I say “accused” because it very much felt like that. Words like vicious, ruthless, and combative would attach themselves to me, and I accepted them, feeling ashamed, like I was too much for people to handle and therefore needed to be really careful with how I show up in the world lest I inflict harm.

I was told to pipe down, just relax, cool my jets, get over it, let it go, pick my battles, and move on. Sound familiar? 

On the playground in elementary school, I used to get in the face of kids who were nasty when the teachers weren’t looking. In middle school, I used to look directly at bullies through my tears and call them out on their actions. In high school, I used to speak up when kids used others as stepping stones (or public punching bags) to make themselves look and feel more powerful. In the corporate world, I blurted out comments when the emperor had no clothes or bullshit was being served up on a platter. As a parent, I did not turn the other cheek when shit was going down.

All of this made me wildly unpopular at times. I was, of course, singled out by the bully when I diverted the attention to me. I sealed the fate of my dorky outcast status in high school. I was tightly managed in the corporate world. And I felt like a pariah at pick-up time from my kids’ schools, sports sidelines and dinner parties. At one point in my mid 40s—when my give-a-shit meter was just starting to go on the fritz—another mother actually cautioned me to “be nice” as  I was walking into a school community gathering.

As a result, for most of my life, I tried to walk this razor thin line between taking a stand (which had me speaking up) and muting myself (which had me playing small). I harbored this secret shame that I was unbelievably cruel and mean and capable of  doing some serious harm. In short, I battled this chronic fear that if I weren’t careful, I would use my powers for evil, not good. I became afraid of feeling angry, and learned it’s best to keep that shit under tight wraps lest I express it outwardly and lay waste to everything I hold dear.

It wasn’t until I started questioning my own beliefs about myself (you know, the ones I had been given and swallowed whole without chewing?), that I started to see there was an enormous gap between the words I’d associated with myself and people’s actual experience of me. Big. Huge. Gap.

When I had a really honest conversation with myself and pulled out the feedback, cards and emails I’d collected from clients over the years to examine the actual comments about my work and people’s perceptions of me, I could finally see what I had missed. It turns out the most common descriptors of me were: warm…big-hearted…make me feel safe..honest…keep it real… inspiring… feel like I can be myself, can say anything…

That was a watershed moment for me.

I realized that somewhere in my youth, I had been called vicious and ruthless or mean maybe a couple of times by a couple of people, and because of its impact, it stuck. I assumed it was true and  never questioned it. Until about 30 years later.

I wrote about this in my book, telling my story of facing and unpacking anger for myself and how I reframed it and, ultimately, reclaimed it. Because you know what lived inside that bundle of shame? My truth, my voice, my effectiveness as a leader, and my ability to affect change. Today, anger, as it relates to women, has been the single most requested topic people want to explore with me during interviews, book readings and storytelling since releasing my book.

Now all this is not to say that I can’t be mean (I can), and that I’m not capable of hurting someone with my words or actions (I do), or that I’m now magically fearless or unfettered (I’m not). My (big) heart still beats wildly in my chest right before I say something out loud that I know will be unpopular, hard to hear or will challenge the status quo. I still replay the video tapes in my head afterward, double-checking myself. Am I mean? Am I blind? Am I delusional? 

But now? Those are genuine questions born out of true curiosity, not out of desire to participate in my own shame. Those questions keep me honest, not small. Those questions keep me humble and connected—living from my heart and my light, not from my head and a desire to hide.

I know I’m not alone, and that helps give me courage. I hear similar versions of the same story from women who make the move, step out, speak up, use their voice, and show themselves. So often those stories begin with being confused, disappointed, concerned, perplexed, frustrated, hurt, and even sad. But you know what’s waiting for us when we dig beneath all that stuff?

Anger. Even rage.

“‘In hard times, filled with hate, look to your highest self instead of getting angry,’ they say. As if my highest self isn’t angry as fuck.” – Andréa Ranae

And here’s the part where anger intersects and clashes wildly with our white women culture. Anger is seen as unattractive, distasteful, threatening and destructive. We are taught from a young age to get rid of it quickly and discreetly, passing it on like a hot potato to someone else if need be. We don’t have a lot of practice being with it, let alone giving voice to it. The result? We kind of suck at expressing our anger at a time when many of us are full to the brim of it, and we could be using that energy to create and lead change.

The bottom line: We white women have some work to do owning and expressing our anger. 

Now let me just pause here and clarify that this is not to suggest that white women are the only angry women. Nor do I mean to suggest that women of color have all that anger shit figured out either. There are plenty of angry women in our world these days, and legions of us are getting loads of opportunity to experience it. What I’m seeking to do—for myself and other white women— is to shine a very particular light in the corner of our white women culture that we don’t often discuss: all that anger we feel and what we do with it.

Because that stuff in our corner? It’s still there, and getting bigger. And if we don’t allow it to exist because we’re uncomfortable (or out of practice, or afraid of not being liked…), we run the risk of it coming out sideways, having it be misdirected, and ultimately rendering it (and us) ineffective.

Ever been dismissed as a bitch, hysterical or an angry feminist? Then you know what happens next. Most of us shut up or get shut down.

But keep all that anger inside, and it rots and festers within us.  I can’t help but make the connection between this unexpressed (in many cases, unvalidated) anger and the state of women’s health. Heart disease. Breast cancer. Depression. What’s that phrase Carolyn Myss, Christiane Northrup and so many others talk about? Our biography is our biology. And when you lay over the history of women and the impact of years of patriarchy? Well now, that’s a pretty rich history that we carry in our collective cellular memories as women.

You know what helps? Practice. 
You know what doesn’t? Shame. 

Why is this important? Because in the absence of doing our own work with anger as white women, we will shop around for others to express that anger for us—like men and women of color or white men. We’ll ask other people to hold the hard stuff we don’t want to be with at a time when many people of color have their arms full of stuff already. There is much to be angry about these days—the injustices, the oppression, the corruption, the violence — and we need all hands on deck if we are to right this ship. Waiting to get comfortable with our anger, be good at voicing it publicly, or having it feel safe is an exercise in white privilege; just as getting self righteous about it is —both actions serve to disconnect and divide us further from ourselves and each other.

You know what helps? Curiosity.
You know what doesn’t? Judgement.

Like many of you reading this, I have been struggling mightily with the anger that has kicked up for me in the wake of our last presidential election. I find I have been working overtime to face and feel the intensity of my anger and use the power of my voice with intention. And yet, many days I am overwhelmed with what I see…how the opportunities…they seem to be…everywhere.

I was sitting with my therapist recently recounting one of them, qualifying it as “not a big deal”, but more of an example of how microaggressions can pile up pretty quickly. I was telling her the story of talking with a man when another man came over and started talking over me, not even acknowledging that A) I was there, or B) I was talking. Without skipping a beat, the man I was talking to stopped listening to me and diverted his attention to the other man. And off they went. I stopped talking and and no one noticed. Or cared. I was fuming but bit my tongue.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” my therapist asked.
“I didn’t want to be, you know… THAT angry feminist,” I responded.
“Why not? “she countered.

Good point. Why not, indeed.

“The patriarchy is so scared of women’s anger that eventually we learn to fear it, too. We walk around as if we were bombs about to go off, worried about admitting how livid we really are, even to ourselves.” – Laurie Penny

Writer Laurie Penny talks about this very thing in her book Bitch Doctrine, exploring why women hide anger, why we fear it and how we can use it to create change. She is clear about the need to distinguish anger from hatred (“anger is an emotion, hatred is an action…”Gloria Steinem has been talking about anger for most of her life. Danielle LaPorte’s latest book explores the notion of “spiritual bypassing” and how “all the woo [can] keep us from dealing with our poo.” Most recently, Tina Fey—in only the way Tina Fey can do—shined a humorous and extremely well-pointed barb on the rage living inside women these days, stirring up a mixed-bag of responses with her “sheet caking” alternative to protest, that would have women yelling at their cakes.

You know what helps? Acknowledging the suckage and trying anyway.
You know what doesn’t? Pretending it doesn’t matter and expecting things to change.

So I, for one, will continue to pull up my plate of anger and sit it squarely in front of me—my version of a sheet cake, I guess. Which means I will get messy with it, make mistakes, make an ass of myself, maybe even offend someone. But you know what? I’ll learn something in the process.  I will have practiced something hard and will suck less at it each time as a result of that effort. I have no intention of stuffing my words down with cake or misdirecting my anger at some shapeless mass of empty carbs, though. And I will try my best to remember this:

It’s not about being nice; it’s about feeling angry.
It’s not about being unproductive; it’s about being honest and showing up.
It’s not about being ready, it’s about being present.
It’s not about feeling safe or comfortable, it’s about being accountable.

And if that doesn’t work, I will hold the image of Tina yelling at the camera with frosting all over her face and her fork flailing around. And if I am so moved, I will lift up my fists full of frosting and make some noise for change — ready or not.

 

Want to hear more stories like this? Check out my Unscripted Evening coming up this September 28th in Yarmouth, Maine. Tickets are now on sale.

 

And if women’s storytelling is your thing, save the date for this year’s SheSpeaks being held at One Longfellow Square on December 7th. The theme is “Life In The Arena” and tickets are on sale now if you’re a planner!

Anger Advocacy

Posted December 16th, 2016

kaliI had a fight with my son this morning. It was one of those times in the car that leaves both people fuming with tense jaws, bitten tongues, and cold steely eyes starting straight ahead. It was awful.

But that’s not what I’m going to tell you about here because honestly, it’s bigger than my relationship with my son and I value our privacy.

 

This is a post about Anger. More to the point, this is about what happens when a woman expresses her anger.

Here’s the gist of what led up to this morning’s stand off in the car:

For the past month, my husband and I have been jumping through the hoops of refinancing our house. We could have gone with another lender and have been done with all this hoopla by now, but we felt strongly about keeping our business local and giving our existing lender a chance to keep our business. That’s all well and good, but the lender has been dropping the ball internally, dragging their feet in making things happen, and making excuses for what essentially amounts to horrid customer service and communication skills. The final nail in the coffin came this week when the appraisal for our home came back (late) and was far below market value. We looked at each other and scratched our heads, having lived in this home nearly 20 years together and having been through this dog and pony show of refinancing many times.

Upon further inspection of the appraisal, it was clear the guy had left off — or failed to make note of — some key things that would have made a difference, like not including all of our rooms, factoring in all the energy efficient windows we’d put in as well as converting our home heating to gas and investing in a high efficiency on-demand water heater. We also learned that the comp he used for our home was one that was significantly smaller, run down, and located on a major through street (versus ours which is at the end of a dead-end street). In fact, a smaller house up the street from us that has an ancient asbestus boiler system and no garage just sold a couple months ago for much higher than the appraisal had come in for our home.

 

Something wasn’t right. So we spoke up. And asked some questions.

The bank basically said tough shit — it’s good enough for the refinance to go though, so we got what we need. Wait, what?

That’s when I called the loan officer directly and spoke up. This time louder. More clearly. More pointed. I was angry they weren’t valuing their relationship with us, given the fact that we could have taken our business elsewhere. I was angry that they knew they had us over a barrel now that the interest rates were going up. I was angry they weren’t fully comprehending that when one customer is dissatisfied, it impacts about 19 other potential customers because consumers talk to each other. I was angry they were confusing disappointment with downright disagreement. I was angry that the loan officer was resentful of our inquiries and inconvenienced by our calling into question the accuracy of a such an important document that was clearly so subjective.

I was just fucking angry.  I started to hear those common phrases play in my head.. move on, get over it already, suck it up, don’t be a sore loser … and I felt the irritation of my chapped skin and raw scab from November’s election flare up again, reminding me how the popular vote in our “democracy” didn’t matter one iota because of the elector college (WTF!?).

Clearly all this was stewing and churning in me as I got into the car and drove my sons to school this morning. It’s clear my glasses were not rosy, and as is often the case in those situations, I started to notice and feel every irritant more deeply. I got frustrated by the driver that didn’t seem to get how to insert a car into traffic by just creeping the nose out little by little and giving the friendly “mind if I cut in?” wave (isn’t that universal?) to the next car in the slow moving chain. I stood on my horn (did I mention I’m from NJ?) when a driver ran a red light and almost slammed into my car.

My son, experienced driver that he is of 14, commented on my driving. I got defensive. I got angry. And then I shut the fuck up – because isn’t that what we’re trained to do as women when we get angry? Like Elsa in the movie Frozen, we are taught to conceal, don’t feel…don’t let them know! We are taught to fear our anger because it could do damage, wreak havoc, lay waste.

But in my silent front seat stewing I started to think about why it is I felt the need to clam up. Beyond the circumstances of my week or the particulars the conversation with my son, I started to see the arc of our culture’s beliefs about women and anger. More than just a frustrated mother of a typical teenager, I sensed there was something of import to convey about a woman’s experience in a world that is governed by white men…a club to which he belongs whether he is aware of it or not.

 

It’s not okay for a woman to express anger in our society. 

I explained to him that as a woman, I have been shamed, shut down and silenced my entire life any time I have attempted to express my anger. I stated this quite plainly. I also said that this is not okay — and especially hurts when it comes from family. Specifically someone I grew inside me.

That was the end of our conversation that I’ll share, but I will say that it was the beginning of a long conversation with myself about this. I started to think about the specific ways we systematically train anger to go underground in women — pummeling it down with a heavy wooden mallet in a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole.

Here’s the series of escalating steps that formed inside my head:

— We tell women they are over-reacting, being too sensitive, making a big deal out of nothing. Somewhere in there we suggest they calm down, relax, and be more patient, compassionate, grateful it’s not worse (I believe we used to call them hysterical and take out their uteruses…)

— If that doesn’t work, we patronize them, patting women on the head, using terms like humoring, tolerating, and allowing her to vent, rant, or blow off some steam.

— If that doesn’t work, then we resort to shaming, suggesting (or outright saying) women are stupid, uninformed, hormonal, or not capable of understanding something complex.

— If that doesn’t work, we try name calling and labeling women as a means to vilify, ostracize, and humiliate them: bitch, shrew, cunt, witch, man-hater.

— If that doesn’t work, we make them invisible, disassociating, physically or mentally shutting them down and cutting them off.

 

So yea, you can see why women hesitate to express anger or are quick to shut it down in others.

I bring this up because from where I sit, the topic of anger among women is swirling all around us these days. Last week on stage at SheSpeaks, several of the speakers made reference to it in their stories, one of them even asking herself (in front of the audience), “What do I do with all this anger I’m feeling?” My individual clients talk about the anger they are feeling these days — at work, at home, in the world — and my women’s circle dances with it as well.

My most recent thought about it is this: if we don’t heal our internal relationship to anger as women, we’re in for many long, dark nights of the soul (there’s a reason heart disease is the number one killer of women…) But moreover, if we don’t make space in our society for women to express their anger externally, we’re in for a long slow road to change in this world.

There is a fundamental difference between anger and violence, but so often they are interpreted as synonymous, and our fear of one keeps us from expressing the other openly.

“I think anger is one of the most misunderstood emotions we have because it spends so little time in the light of day. It’s shunned and left to fend for itself in its dark cave, mumbling and scuffing up the dirt in frustration like a petulant child. I don’t blame it – I’d be a bit ornery, too, if I were that devalued and misunderstood. Because at its essence, anger is just really another form of energy. It’s an emotion with Tabasco sauce splashed on top. And it generally has something for us to hear. Something that’s coming from a deep and meaningful place.” – Unscripted, pg 135

We are taught that anger is toxic to our bodies, and I agree, but I want to clarify and expand upon that notion. Anger is a natural human emotion that can be a catalyst for incredible change, even a source of power in that it can fuel and drive us forward. But if it remains unexpressed and silenced or stuffed, it can sour and ferment inside us, setting us on the path to one of two outcomes: outward violence (verbal, mental, physical abuse that disconnects us from others and does harm) or inward violence (self-loathing, shame, sickness and dis-ease that disconnects us from ourselves and does harm).

The good news is that we are all capable of making our own choice with how we want to be with anger — our own and others.

We can get out our hammers, participate in our own shame, and do our best to erase the truth inside the anger with a sorry. Or we can increase our capacity to be with it — which means being willing to get messy, be uncomfortable, ruffle feathers, or even offend. But there is one thing that is undeniable in all this:

 

Anger is here, like it or not. It’s the mole that refuses to be whacked.

So what do I plan to do about it?

That experience this morning got me thinking about all the ways I have experienced my plain truth of anger as a woman, and also all the ways I have contributed to whacking it down. While I can’t control how other’s experience me, I can control my own relationship to anger and how I allow — or don’t allow — myself to express it. I can control how I dance — or don’t — with other people’s expressions of anger. I can also control how I give voice to it as a means for bringing it into the light of day — giving space for it to exist, be safe, have merit. Ergo this post.

When I think about it in the light of day, Anger isn’t something that needs to be “managed” or even tolerated, it needs to be actively practiced — so we can get better at expressing it. Look what happened to Elsa in Frozen when she finally took off the gloves and assumed ownership for something that flowed naturally from her. Sure, the village experienced a momentary freak freeze (ever heard of the Hindu goddess Kali?) and perhaps some people got startled or scared, but ultimately, she lead the kingdom and leveraged her gift to create colorful beauty from cold ice.

And sure, you could make a case for that simply being a kid’s movie…but isn’t that we’re all just doing here anyway? Playing our parts, hitting our marks, and following the scripts that were written for us?

I don’t know about you, but I’m auditioning to do the voice-over for Anger. I think I’d make a badass advocate for that character.

A Living Prayer: Embodying Intention

Posted September 30th, 2016

woman-prayingThe woman’s word was “WORTH“, and I watched as she went first, embodying each letter of that word — her intention – with her body, spelling it first forwards and then retracing it backwards.

I was her partner. My job was to witness her.

It was an exercise, really — something we were asked to do as part of a ritual for a new moon Qoya gathering. If you’re not familiar with it, the foundational belief in Qoya is that through movement, women remember they are wild, wise and free.

A friend of mine who is trained in Qoya recently decided to offer a series of new moon rituals with a small group of women here in Maine. The last time I attended one of her sessions it inspired the opening scene from my book. Needless to say, I was keenly aware of reentering that sacred space again just over a year later. Part of me couldn’t help wondering if dancing in this barn was how I would begin all of my books.

But as I stood there, watching my partner dance her intention, all my thoughts and wonderings sloughed off me and slid soundlessly to the floor. I watched as this woman — whose voice was barely above a whisper when she spoke — close her eyes and move deeper and deeper into her skin as she embodied each letter. I became transfixed by her as she moved through the W and onto the H and the O and the L, eventually getting to the E. When she finished each pass, she quietly gathered herself, keeping her eyes closed, and made her way back through the word, ending where she began, with a W.

Back and forth she went as I watched, sometimes in capitals, and sometimes choosing to embody a lower case letter. While music played softly in the background and three other women traced their words with their bodies behind her, I watched my partner, enrapt. I could see the moment where the exercise moved from her head and melted down into her body. And then her soul. I watched as her expression of the word “WHOLE” shifted from being a thought or an intention “out there” to a whole hearted embodied desire “in here”.

And as I widened my gaze beyond her particular movements, I could take in the other women moving in the space, eyes closed while they invited their desires to inhabit their bodies more fully. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before – no choreography, no synchronization, no consciousness or awareness of how they were sharing the space in this small magical barn in the middle of the woods. They just moved from someplace deep down in their bodies — and when taken as a whole, the scene was utterly breathtaking like some mystical ballet was happening before my eyes.

When the music paused and my partner opened her eyes and looked into my own, we both had tears streaming down our faces. The awkwardness was gone, and a deep intimacy had moved in its place, bonding me to this woman who had been a stranger 30-minutes earlier.

Then it was my turn, and she waited patiently as I gathered myself and wrote my (long) word on a piece of paper so I would know how to spell it backwards. My word was “LUMINOUS”, and my breath caught in my throat when I felt myself write it down — as if I were taking a sacred vow with the Divine.

I began as she did, a bit awkward and literal in my movements, wondering if my partner could “read” what I was “writing” with my body. And then, as she did, I felt the shift. Far from a flip of a switch, the sensation felt more like a faucet had been opened to its widest aperture within me. I could feel I was dancing with and for something much greater than simply my own intention.

I felt like a high priestess. I felt deeply of service. 

I felt luminous as I was embodying the word “LUMINOUS“. It wasn’t simply something I was wanting or aspiring to be…it was actually ME in that moment. More than that, it was flowing out of me, like my body had become one of those a metal spiles that gets tapped into a maple tree, and this warm viscous syrup was just pouring through me — and out of me — like a gift.

When the music stopped and my friend instructed the dancers to open their eyes, I felt the same sensation I had when my partner met my eyes after her dance — a deep connection that felt more like gratitude; as if witnessing me and being in my presence had somehow nourished her.

I have never experienced anything quite like that in my life, and that’s saying a lot because if you know me at all (or have read my book), you know I’m no stranger to being exposed to things like this. But this was different. And, I assume, timely and by design.

This was me living my prayer with my whole body. Or perhaps my wholly body.

A living prayer. I’ve written about that concept, and maybe you’ve even heard me talk about it. The tagline of my book is even entitled “A Woman’s Living Prayer“. But now I get that writing those words on my book was really the equivalent of me opening yet another door inside myself, saying “this way, Lael…this way.

The first was an intellectual exercise (naming it) as I started to chew on a new desire, and the latter is actually me deciding and learning how to embody (own) that desire. The first was saying my prayer, the latter is living it.

This is something I’ve actively been making space for in my creative life lately — inviting that living prayer into my body more fully and feeling my way as I go. I know now that I can’t simply just understand it. I have to experience it. And I am, more and more. I’ve had moments in nature recently where I feel completely present and connected to the earth, feeling its pulse as my own. I’ve held my boys and smelled their heads and experienced profoundly new degrees of presence. I’ve made art and gotten in the dirt. I’ve immersed myself in lakes and oceans, and have felt the wind hit my skin in new ways. In all of these instances, I’ve slowed down – by choice, by circumstance, or by design. Most recently, I found myself singing that song by Alison Krauss — the very song that inspired the tagline of my book — the other night in the shower:

Take my life…and let me be….a living prayer…my God to thee. 

In the hot water and the mist of the shower, naked and with my eyes closed, it did, indeed, feel like I was making a prayer with my whole body. A prayer that had me being of service, of doing work that felt sacred, of using myself to let some amber syrup run into the world. A prayer that had me vibrating with such a clear intention that I am luminous.

I’m finding my way into this, I am. I can feel it in my bones, but more to the point, I can feel it in my soul. It’s not always graceful — and certainly not without a good fight every now and then just to prove to myself I’m alive and kicking. But my senses are more alive now than they’ve ever been which, in this culture and landscape, has been both wonderful and challenging. My increased senses have literally made me more sensitive.

But now? Something new has emerged from all this: a curiosity. A desire to hear from and connect with others who are interested in this idea of being a living prayer. In fact, earlier this year when I announced I would be relaunching my SheSpeaks event (my evening of women’s storytelling) this December 8th, I decided the theme for this one would be “A Living Prayer.” I want to hear from more women on this topic: What is your living prayer and how are you living it? But more importantly, I want to bear witness to them embody it that night, just as I did my partner as she traced her intention with her body.

I am envisioning an entire audience dripped in warm syrup by the end of the evening.

So join me — and them — if you’d like on December 8th (tickets are on sale now), but in the meantime I’ll leave you with this invitation on this new moon in Libra (an uber powerful time to manifest, by the way…):

— Pick a word… a word that lights you up, makes your whole body smile, and represents a deep desire for yourself
— Put on some quiet music
— Enlist a partner to witness you or simply keep company with yourself
— And invite your word to move into you more fully by slowly tracing each letter with your body, first forwards then backwards
— Repeat this (S.L.O.W.L.Y.) until you feel it move out of your head and into your bones…wait for the faucet to open

Somewhere in all that, see if you can feel how what you want — your living prayer — is actually connected to us all. See if you can feel how the service you are doing, the nourishment you are providing, the gift you are offering starts with you and ultimately pours out to us like syrup.

And then thank yourself for being such a badass rockstar of a living prayer. I know we will.

Whoopsie

Posted April 13th, 2016

MoneyI made a startling realization the other day. One that actually made me say “whoopsie” out loud – and had me kicking myself for letting it happen on my watch.

The realization? I had inadvertently made the amount of money I earn the sole measure my worth.

Whoopsie. And wtf! I knew better than that, yet there I was – caught red-handed with my own realization.

It’s not surprising how that happened. I mean, this is tax season — the time many of us have a reckoning between last year’s best laid plans and this year’s actual reality. It can often be a nail-bitting, breath-holding time of year as we run all the reports, gather up the receipts, fill out all the forms, and then….wait. Wait for the final verdict – which, depending on the degree of your fiscal planning acumen (and discipline) can run the gamut from pleasantly surprised to totally blindsided (and everything in between).

To be completely honest, I pretty consistently fall in the “somewhere in between” camp. Such is the life of a hard-working optimist who loves strategy and also believes in magic.

I love playing with numbers and making them sing in our personal household finances as well as my business. I have done a shit ton of work around money (thank you Kate Northrup ) over the past years, and am proud of the solid and respectful relationship we’ve fostered, Money and I.

Thanks to teasing apart my truth from what I had been taught, I was able to face down fear, slay some old dragon beliefs I had been carrying, and fully own my desire as a woman to feel financially free and prosperous. The result is that my relationship to money feels lighter, more powerful and yes, even nourishing — having me feel financially fed as I run a profitable business while also feeling spiritually and emotionally aligned and connected to my work.

I am undeniably passionate about women realizing and getting their financial worth. I look at the wage gap, and I see all the systems, cultures, and antiquated mindsets we still have that get in the way of us making more forward progress. It’s a lot to look at — at times overwhelming — even with rose-colored glasses.

But in my work? I look at the woman I see in the mirror. And I look at the woman sitting across from me (in person or over the phone) and I ask: How are you culpable here? How are you contributing to the wage gap? And then I invite us both to look at that topic of worthiness (or confidence, assertiveness or negotiation), because that is something we women have direct control over – our relationship to money and how we show up (or don’t).

All good stuff, right?

On most days, yes, absolutely. I walk my talk around money, “touching” it on a weekly basis, looking at it from all different angles, and doing analysis in both forward and backward directions to orient myself. All of that lends credibility to the work I do with women leaders and business owners who are also seeking to increase their income at the same rate they are unleashing their value-added contributions. Turns out I’m not the only woman out there wanting to make her numbers sing more.

Sure, there are plenty shit-hitting-the-fan, oops-we-forgot-about-that, or YOLO moments that happen throughout our year. There are many, many nights I lay awake just worrying about what could happen in the blink of an eye — the unexpected health scare, lost job, ailing parent or heaven forbid child, natural disasters, and things (cars, furnaces, septic line, roof, relationships, contracts, social security system, the power grid…) that could break. 

Which of course has me feel vulnerable. Like a turtle without its hard shell.

I kid you not, I actually woke up the other morning listing in my head the insurance coverage and policies we had that helped offer some semblance of a “shell” that would mitigate against disaster if something unforeseen went down or exploded. It took me a while. Let’s just say I needed more than 10 fingers to tick them all off.

And then I thought (yes, still laying in bed…I’ll even use worrying as an excuse to stay in bed a bit longer…): What the fuck is wrong with this picture? So much insurance. So much bracing for disaster.  So much fear.

So much riding on making, having, and spending money. Like a machine.

But the thing is, I’m not a machine. Nor do I wish to be one — or even play one on TV. I actually am the turtle without its shell. All that other stuff is just an illusion. A source of comfort, sure, but ultimately smoke and mirrors.

Which brings me back to my worth and the realization I had the other day.

I had forgotten to make space for other measures to define my worth.

That’s my job — clearly our society won’t do that for me just yet — and I had fallen down on it. I’d let money be the sole measure of my worth. Whoopsie.

I came home that night and catapulted into the kitchen, eager to share my latest realization with my best friend and life partner. He smiled at me, knowing me well enough to know that my whole-body-wagging sensation would only be abated when I shared my new found treasure with him.

“I can’t believe I have been basing my entire worth on how much money I’m making! Do you realize what a mistake that is – and how limiting it can be? Dangerous, even. It sets me up so that if I’m making money, I’m worthy…but if I’m not making money – or enough of it, I’m what…unworthy!? Or worse..worthless? That’s fucking bullshit. How did I let that happen?”

Again, he smiled. Reminding me of the time I came home earlier this year — after having written blog posts for 10 years, and having written, re-written, edited, and actually published a book — and said with a gobsmacked expression on my face (so I’m told): “I think I’m a writer…”

That guy…he just gets me. Even when something “new” dawns on me when to him it has been obvious and plain as day all along.

So I’ve been getting busy. Now that the tax season is nearly behind me, the “somewhere in between” big reveal has happened once again, and I’ve done my annual crunching of the numbers to position myself for next year, I’m taking a step back from all that.

I still love to make my numbers sing, and I will always have that. But I want to widen my definition to include more measures of my worth — ones that don’t hinge so much on my ability to make money, the size of my savings account, the state of our readiness (insert laugh track here) for our sons’ educations and our eventual retirement.

It’s got to be a broader. And it’s up to me to put the rib spreaders on the chest of that existing definition to crack it open.

As I sit here today, I think I have my first clue. I’ve been writing this post in a local coffee shop, hearing the Beatles croon in my ear. First across the speakers, and now in the lovely ear worm it left inside me playing loop after loop of the same refrain:

2014-01-28 09.51.16All you need is love 
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need. 

I was humming those words to myself again and again without even realizing it.

I was reminded of that opening scene from one of my favorite movies, Love Actually, where Hugh Grant, in his lovely British voiceover, reminds us that when you need to counter the gloom of the state of the world, all you need to do is consider the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport in London…or the messages sent from the people on board the planes hitting the twin towers.

“If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that you’ll find love is actually all around.” 

Which makes a pretty solid case for worth having a lot to do with our capacity to both give and receive love — as well as to see it when it’s all around.

Yup. I’ve got that in spades.

Laying Hands on The Empty Spot

Posted January 28th, 2016

2016-01-12 18.23.31Last week I needed a lifeline. I got one (thankfully) when I reached out to a good friend. Here’s what was going on:

My book, Unscripted: A Woman’s Living Prayer, finally came out on Amazon on December 30th, just getting in under the wire before a new year started.

I say “finally”, because it felt like I had worked and waited an eternity for that moment. I had talked about it, written about it, and eventually grew disenchanted with the whole stale topic, thinking (on my worst days) that the day I was waiting for (“It’s OUT!!!”) would never come. I know in the larger scheme of things that sounds like a gross exaggeration and, admittedly, it is. Books often take years to be born. But I wasn’t operating in the larger scheme last year – I was in my scheme. The one where it felt like an eternity.

But on that sweet night of December 30th, when the last approval had been submitted, the last switch had been thrown, and all the proper fields of information had been filled out, I let out a huge whoop of delight and did a little dance around my house to celebrate.

Elated and prancing about, I told my 13-year-old son that getting that book out of me was an even bigger relief than when his 10 pound body finally slid out of me after six hours of pushing. He kind of winced, mortified, no doubt, by that graphic image, but my whole body broke into a wide grin at that comparison. Because it remembered that sensation and agreed. My body knew what I was talking about.

I was thrilled. Proud. Relieved. And completely and utterly exhausted.

I felt my whole body exhale, as if I had been holding my breath for 16 months and hadn’t realized it. My shoulders started to detach from my earlobes, and the winced-pinched expression on my face started to smooth out a bit, I’m quite sure. Suddenly, there was a taste of sweetness, as if honey and dark chocolate had replaced the lemon and vinegar taste I’d been so used to in my mouth.

Big, long, lush E-X-H-A-L-E. 

But it was also still the holiday season and the beginning of a new year, so there were lots of fresh starts, shiny new intentions and family rituals that bedazzled the turning of the year in our house and my business, like sparkling diamonds glistening on the freshly fallen snow outside.

2016-01-11 08.21.17Texts and emails started to roll in from my friends and clients who had already bought – and were loving – the book I had written. People were posting pictures of my book on Facebook with their babies, mugs of tea and happy, smiling faces next to it.

Smart, accomplished, competent, and discerning women I admired, trusted and respected reached out to thank me for writing what I wrote – telling me that my words and stories had them deep in thought, laughing and crying as they resonated with my experience as a woman, feeling both validated and inspired. One woman even said she was feeling more loving toward herself, which made me weep in gratitude.

2016-01-25 11.42.51Have you ever had one of those moments? When the massive project was completed and met with rave reviews? When the huge event went off without a hitch? When you finally fulfilled the classes and got the degree? When the thing that had consumed you for so long was now behind you – and all that remained was to put away the chairs, sweep up the confetti and turn off the lights on your way out?

Then you know. You know the elation and the deep sense of accomplishment and profound gratitude. You know the huge exhale and the intense feeling of relief, satisfaction, and pride of an effort that was met with success.

And perhaps you might know the void that follows.

Years ago, after the birth of my rather large first baby mentioned above, I went to get a massage. I had gone to this particular woman throughout the entire course of my pregnancy – from the “I think I might be expecting” early days to the “I can’t breathe there’s no room” overdue days – so she had witnessed my body and its changes for a year. On this first massage post-partum, I was feeling a bit tender and lost without that singularity of purpose in my belly – but I didn’t know it then.
2016-01-12 18.18.48All I knew is that I was bone tired, a bit dazed by what had just happened in my body, and stunned by the vast unknown that lay ahead of me. I was also weepy. Very, very, very weepy.

The kind and serene masseuse lay her hands on me, noting that this was the first time in a long time that I was flat on my back. She suggested we might begin with my stomach, seeing that was the source of much activity over the past 10 months. As she put her hands on my belly, which felt mushy and poochy with extra skin, she made a sad face and said,

“Oh… it feels so empty in there now.”

At which point, I burst into sobs. She didn’t know the potency of what she had said – she was young and had not grown a child in her body yet. But her words – raw and uncensored as they were – helped me to name exactly what I was feeling: Grief.

The empty spot in me where something beautiful had been growing.

That’s the image that has been in my mind as I’ve been 2016-01-13 12.51.16traveling about these past three or four weeks since my book was released. The grief for the book that had been my primary focus, my key bearing, and my constant traveling companion for over a year. The sweetness of knowing something beautiful – something I gave life to from inside my body – is now living on its own outside me. And the sadness at having that empty womb – the spot in me that was created by its birth.

It’s a lot to wrap your brain around. 

How do you hold so much gratitude and joy, while also holding a sense of loss? Perhaps you know. Perhaps you’ve been there at the very place I have been standing. Perhaps you know, then, how very easy it is to just get busy.

And that’s exactly what I tried to do in those weeks after the holidays faded and we all got back to the grind of our work weeks and usual routines. I thought* I gave myself some latitude (*thought being the operative word there…) in those first few post-partum weeks, telling myself to be gentle and savor and take my sweet time.

But inside? Inside was a fucking street fight that was getting ugly. A battle between sweet and sour was being waged, and blood was about to be shed.

Marching orders were coming in fast and furious over my wires, like the tick-tick-tick of a Morse Code machine – loud, urgent, and almost indecipherable.

You need to get busy now. 
You need to know where you’re going with all this. 
You need to promote this – get out there and promote this! 
You should go on a book tour!
You should do local book readings!
You should write about your book! 
You need to get out there – hire a PR person! 
Should…! Ought to…! Have to…! Must do…! 
Chop, chop! Tick tock! Time is wasting.
MOVE!!!!

I had responses and answers to all of those commands (“No”, “I don’t want to”, “I don’t feel like it”, “Not now.”), but apparently they weren’t the right ones because the marching orders got louder and just started barking at me in shouty caps. Relentlessly.

2016-01-13 14.06.46My body was giving me such clear messages, but they weren’t jiving with my head. My head was insisting I overrule those messages, but as I started to rest and play and relax more into the expanse of this post-partum time, my body was just feeling so damn good I didn’t want to budge. Even in the face of some really loud voices telling me I was wrong.

And that is why I needed a lifeline. 

I called my friend, a published author herself who, ironically, is now post partum from a baby of the human sort, who has been there, done that, and had come out the other side of it. I told her how I was feeling right and wrong at the same time.

And like the masseuse did that day 13 years ago, my friend gave me the words that helped me touch the empty spot that was actually still very much full inside me.

It was empty from the book that had been living inside me, sure, but now that same spot was quite full from receiving gratitude after its birth.

“The key is digestion. You’re full. Even unacknowledged good stuff will turn to shit if it’s not digested.”

She went on to tell me how “a book is forever” –  a phrase that felt like luscious balm on my soul – and how there was no timeline that needed to be followed, no prescribed steps that needed to be taken. In fact, in a surprising twist, she said she was actually watching me in how I was going about the release of this book, saying that “non-launch launches” are actually the new thing right now (who knew?)

Once I heard this from my friend – the one I trusted, my lifeline for this particular topic – I started to see signs everywhere I looked that were reinforcing that same message. My acupuncturist whom I hadn’t seen in two years felt my pulse and said that my body was incredibly low on resources – specifically my “fluid…which is the home of the feminine energy in you.” I ran out to the car one morning late to work and my car battery had died. My iphone went on the fritz not responding to any of my touches and then just stopped all together. A handful of clients rescheduled, leaving my week feeling expansive and deliciously open.

It was all so clear now. So why did it have to be such a knock-down-drag-out-fight to get me to see that?

I suspect it has something to do with my relationship to “empty spaces”, the void of the unknown, or more specifically, grief. Like a cat in an open room, I freaked out a little with all that openness.

It’s also easier and often preferable to listen to the noise of busy instead of the quiet of empty – I know this from my own experience.

But I also know what’s waiting for me on the other side of that listening:

  • more internal resources
  • more juice for my battery
  • a happier and healthier digestive tract
  • a fully-charged me that’s not on the fritz

So now that I’ve got all that sorted out in my tired brain, the fight in me has remarkably dissipated. I’ve tuned into the quiet urgings inside me, am hot on its trail and am eager to lay hands on it with love.

Thankfully, I’m in good hands. It seems I always was. I just needed a lifeline to point it out.

Life In The Arena

Posted September 25th, 2015

Photo credit: Melissa Mullen PhotographyMy son and I sat on the couch last night and looked at the proof for the cover of my book. He nodded, and then got really quiet. I asked him why.

“I’m afraid you’re going to get bullied.”

I was speechless. His one comment touched on two raw nerves of mine: 1) the intense vulnerability I am feeling in releasing this book into the world and 2) my sadness that he is growing up in a world that has kids fearing the likely reality – not just for themselves, but for their parents – of being bullied.

I don’t remember being afraid for my parents.

And he’s right. I am terrified. Even as I move forward. Because it is a reality I face. I support my clients in facing down that fear daily in my work, and with this latest creative endeavor of mine, I know that feeling all too well in my own bones.

Here’s the likely reality:

Someone will think what I’ve written is a crock of shit, a load of bunk, or pointless drivel

Someone will call me an entitled white bitch, an angry feminist, or a self-absorbed narcissist

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechangesSomeone will take offense to what I’ve written and will reciprocate by offending me

I’ll be called stupid, foolish, delusional or a whack job

Someone will say that buying my book is a waste of good money or reading it is a waste of valuable time

Someone will find a typo or a grammatical error on page 46 (to name just one) and will use it as evidence of my stupidity

Someone will say they are disappointed by my book…that they expected it to be better, more, different

Someone will feel the need to inform me of all the nasty and mean-spirited things being said about me that I might have missed

Some of these people will be well-intentioned, but many will not. Because sadly, that is the reality of the world we face. Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk touched on this, pointing out that we have made public shaming a blood sport in our society.

I’m not being dramatic. I’m being realistic. Even as I move forward.

When I think of “blood sport”, I think of gladiators and how they entered the arena knowing there was a strong likelihood they would die. They entered the arena with the intention of fighting for their life in front of a crowd that was hungry for blood to be spilled. I remember a similar sensation when I went to a monster truck rally with my sister, feeling an embarrassingly strong desire for some horrific crash to happen. Blood.

Part of me knows it is in our nature as humans to be drawn to death – we do it every day when we slow down at the scene of an accident: it’s called rubber-necking. But social media has taken this sometimes event and turned it into an everyday occurrence. It’s the new normal.

Brene Brown’s TED talk revealed her own experience with this phenomenon when she first sought to engage us with topics like shame, humiliation and vulnerability. I saw her speak recently to a sold out audience for her latest book tour, Rising Strong. She shared the story that helped me finally get off my ass over a year ago and start to write my book that was inside me.

Her story was about sitting in bed one morning in the weeks after releasing one of her books, and reading – even though she promised herself she wouldn’t do it – the scathing comments on Amazon. She was called fat and ugly and other horrific hurtful things.

It broke her heart, and damn near broke her spirit.

2015-09-25 10.26.30And then, she stumbled upon a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that helped her to see her own bravery – for having the courage to step into the arena and get messy, maybe even fail.

In that moment, she decided she would only take feedback from those who were also in the arena – those brave souls out there with her that were also taking risks, doing something that scared the shit out of them, and doing so publicly – agreeing to have their endeavors (good, bad or ugly) be seen by the masses, and consenting to be vulnerable.

Hearing her story was the catalyst for me staying yes to this book – for me going into the bowels of the arena, taking the creaky elevator up, and stepping out in the bright light, knowing there are most likely lions lurking and ready to pounce.

I want to be one of those brave people – like Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, when she first arrives in the arena with the other tributes, many of whom become allies.

Except I’m not going to engage in a battle. I’m not going fight in the arena – I’ve done that, been there, bought the t-shirt. And I’m tired. It’s an exhausting strategy.

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechangesI’ve decided I’m simply going to be present in the arena – to stand on my patch of dirt and to live my life as a form of prayer. To burn with an intention so bright, I am luminous and able to be seen clearly by others.

A Living Prayer. I write about this in my book, but what I essentially mean by that statement is that I want to live life with the intention – for me, for women, for us all – to be free. To be who we are without all the apologies, explanations, justifications, qualifications, and ramifications.

Because I want more people in the arena. I want a crowd. A village. A party. A revolution.

I want the arena to be where it’s at, and I want the stands for spectators to feel barren and desolate…unappealing to the masses.

So I’m being very public with my experience of writing this book – which includes my process of entering the arena. Brene Brown (and Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Glennon Doyle Melton, Anne Lamott, Danielle LaPorte, Tama Kieves, Christiane Northrup…as so many more) did it for me, so I’m paying it forward.

If you’ve found your way to SheChanges and you’ve stumbled upon this – and read this far – I’m going to take a wild guess that you are poised to enter the arena in some capacity.

So for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Shame doesn’t help
Trying to talk myself out of my fear by telling myself I have no reason to feel it? That is just piling shame on top of fear – a toxic stew for the soul. And yet it’s so seductive, it lures you in without even realizing it, like sirens on the rocks. Here’s how that looks: just this morning, I stumbled upon an interview with Aberash Bekele, a Ethiopian woman who was imprisoned at the age of 14 for three years for killing her abuctor-cum-husband, only to be released, exiled from her country and family, having to go silent about her experience for fear of her life being taken. THAT woman has right to be afraid, not me – the western white woman with advanced degrees and a life of privilege. What right do I have to be afraid? Truth? Absolutely – a solid case. Helpful? Not in the least. Shame silences soul whispers and snuffs out desire. It tells us we are not worthy and have no right to feel what we feel or want what we want. There are plenty of people who will do it for you, and we have no control over that. But what I’m learning is how to catch myself when I am actively participating in my own shame.

Naming and feeling your fear feels counter-intuitive, but it greases the skids and helps you move forward
Wanting something with your whole heart means you run the risk of getting heartbroken. It just does. I sat with a client yesterday who was poised to go after her dream with her whole heart, and had hired me to hold her to that intention. We talked about how “scared” and “uncomfortable” would be her new metrics of success. When we started to drill down to specifics and brass tacks, I saw what I often see in my clients (and have felt in my own bones): paralysis. Fear moves into terror, which has us want to hold perfectly still – not breathing, not moving a muscle, hoping the feeling will recede. But it doesn’t go away. It lingers, and we soon find ourselves stuck and lacking oxygen. This was the case with my client yesterday and when I paused at that moment and asked what she was feeling, she burst into sobs and was unable to speak. What we touched was her fear: what if I do this and I fail? By touching it, we honored it – we made it right, we allowed that fear to come into the light of day and have an audience with us. Which allowed the death grip to be loosened, the breath to return, and the body to relax and feel safe again.

Hang around with brave people
This one is tricky to navigate. What I’m talking about is not the people who necessarily comfort you, but those who inspire you to come out from behind yourself (into the arena). Many times they are in the arena themselves. But more often than not, they are the people that don’t see you in harms way or in danger – they see you on an adventure or a mission. They don’t soothe as much as they agitate, like that cycle in the washer that gets out the stubborn stains. In the coaching world, we call this technique “calling forth” someone – locking eyes, saying “I see you”, and standing fiercely beside them in the face of fear (or doubt, anxiety, the unknown, obstacles…) Brave people are the ones that see life as an adventure to be lived. Brave people have fallen down and would do it again in a heartbeat. Brave people know how to “feed your strengths…pet the tigers…and don’t worry about the amoebas”, as Tama Kieves writes about in This Time I Dance. Brave people love you too much to have you stay where you are. Find them.

Shake it off…literally
Rochelle Schieck, founder of Qoya (although she’s quick to admit Qoya founded her) taught me something so valuable when I attended one of her dance experiences this past summer at Meggan Watterson’s REVEAL immersion at Kripalu. Her premise is that when women dance, they remember they are wise, wild, and free. At some point during this guided dance experience, she tells a story about a gazelle being chased by a lion. She points us back to our animal instincts, when she shares that after the gazelle is out of harms way it begins to shake. All over. Not because it’s afraid, but because it is systematically inviting the fear to exit its body, one appendage at a time. So she has women do that – shaking hands, hips, butts, heads, feet – showing us how the earth is able to receive that fear from us and use it as compost. The result? More lightness, heat, and vitality. Try it. Shake one hand really hard for ten seconds or so, and then stop and hold it up next to your other hand. Notice a difference. Yea. So if you’re feeling scared, nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, overcome: shake.

Ask for what you need
And know that this will change, sometimes daily. This is often the hardest bit for women, because asking for what we need takes us into the realm of feeling selfish, guilty or needy (all variations of the shame theme above). Having navigated this over the last year, I found the muscle I’ve needed to strengthen the most was providing specific direction to those in my life on how I needed them to be with me. For instance, I would tell my husband and sons that I was in a deeply creative hole, and so if I seemed overly distracted or preoccupied, I need them to understand it was because I wasn’t really here in this realm, but was far, far away – deep inside myself. In another example, I told a group of women I meet with regularly that I just needed to give voice to my shame so that it could be witnessed by someone outside myself, asking them to resist the urge to rescue, fix or soothe me in that moment.  What this has required of me is a degree vigilance and self-awareness I didn’t know I possessed. But when I was able to connect my needs to the service I was seeking to honor by writing this book, I was somehow able to become a better wing woman for myself.

Figure it out as you go
The phrase “I don’t know” has become a familiar traveling companion over the past twelve months. In fact, not only am I saying that phrase with more frequency, but I’m also believing it. I never thought I’d get to that point, but it speaks volumes to my relationship to the unknown and the degree to which I’ve had to acclimate to feeling uncomfortable, exposed, and vulnerable. Because the reality is, as my friend Kate has been known to say, “none of us know what the fuck we’re doing.”  I have taken such solace from that over the past year. It’s what has helped me not feel so alone. I used to look at accomplished women and tell myself a story about how confident, supported and fearless they must feel. Then I heard Kate’s mother, Christiane Northrup speak in front of a group of women this summer about how being at the edge is always lonely. Always. With tears in her eyes and a heart full of gratitude, she shattered my perception of her life – having me see that just because she has written countless books, done PBS specials and been interviewed on multiple occasions by Oprah, she was no less impervious to fear and vulnerability than I am. Fear, it seems, is a constant companion at the edge – and in the arena. Necessity is the mother of invention. Feeling fear (and doubt and insecurity) is an prerequisite to figuring it out.

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechanges

So I will not be engaging in a battle in the arena. I will be living my prayer and inviting you to do the same.

I will be thinking about the wise friend of mine who told me that my job was to throw my rocks into the water – and to stop expecting to see all the ripples it creates.

“Just keep throwing rocks, Lael.” 

I will be thinking about the woman I will most likely never hear from or read about. The one who picks up my book in the middle of the night, relates to something I’ve written, and doesn’t feel so alone as a result.

I’ll be thinking about her.

She will have made my trip into the arena worth every moment.

My Next New Thing: Food For Thought

Posted June 3rd, 2015

2015-06-03 14.46.09I am always so grateful when a period of intense introspection is rewarded by a sudden burst of inspiration.

Argh…BOOM! Ahhhhh…. YES!

It so good to get to the other side after walking over hot coals (which to be clear, means having myself sit still, “do” nothing, blow shit off, let the house look like a bomb went off in it, make space, get silent, and go inward…) Good times, indeed, let me tell ya. But so worth it.

That was the case for me earlier this week. When I got clear (again) on why I’m here, what that means to me now, and why it matters. But most importantly, it had me arrive at the doorstep of what comes next.

Here is the back story on my “what comes next” moment with myself and what I intend to do about it.

Contributing A Verse

Posted September 10th, 2014

Contribute a verseFour weeks ago, I sat in a stale-smelling, artificially-lit waiting area of Maine Medical center. It was 6:30 am and my first-born child had just been wheeled into surgery.

First child. First surgery.

I was told – first patently, then patronizingly – that I had “no reason” to worry. The arrogant and emotionally-stunted – albeit brilliant, or so I was told repeatedly – surgeon insisted my son’s surgery was a non-event and nothing to be worried about, and attempted to mollify my concerns and questions by recounting his vast years of experience, reminding me that he could work at any hospital in the country. He was that brilliant, that good.

In one fell swoop, this surgeon-cum-God informed me that not only was I wrong to be worried on that cold medically-induced morning, but I was also remiss in not understanding how lucky I was to have him performing the operation on my son. Wrong on two counts, I was.  Yup, we were mixing like peanut butter and mustard on cinnamon-raisin bread.

In the large scheme of things, he was probably right. This wasn’t a big deal, was it? Four months prior, my son had the misfortune of getting a rather large splinter lodged in his foot when he slid across the length of his friend’s hardwood kitchen floor in socks. Unbeknownst to us, a piece remained after the initial extrication, and continued to fester – stubbornly – in the bottom of his foot, a fat and fetid chunk of dirty wood suspended in a large pocket of pus (lovely, right?) So yea, I guess a case could be made for it not being a big deal. After all, it wasn’t his heart or his brain being cut open. He didn’t have cancer. Nothing was broken, really.

My otherwise healthy eleven year old son was having a one-inch piece of wood surgically removed from the bottom of his foot. The foot that I grew inside my body. From scratch. The one that had never been cut open before by a surgeon’s knife.

I get how in the large scheme of things, I ought not to have been concerned. But here’s the thing: that morning in the hospital – and in the days leading up to it – I wasn’t living in the larger scheme. I was living in my scheme. The one where I had the right to worry. The one where worrying was a normal reaction. The one where putting my child under with general anesthesia and signing a waiver that if something went wrong it wasn’t the hospitals fault was a very big deal.

But, sadly, you know what I did when faced with this reaction from the doctor? I allowed myself to be shamed and ultimately silenced. I’d like to say it was unconscious on my part, but I’d be lying and well, let’s just not do that here. Truth be told, I actively participated in stepping down in the face of a bully with a scalpel who was deigning to care for my child, despite his annoyance with me as his unfortunate mother.

I blamed it on my pediatrician, the DO with whom I had entrusted my children’s care for nearly twelve years. The one who listened compassionately and offered the perfect blend of head and heart, traditional and alternative care, listening and counseling. The one who has assured me that I had a right to ask questions and encouraged me to be resourceful and gather information and options until I had answers. The one who validated that it was, in fact, my job to advocate for my child. The one that told me to listen to my instincts. The one who told me it’s not a crazy outlandish notion to want to feel that you can trust someone with your child’s life.

But instead, I got out the flog and started beating myself with it (for shame, Lael!) I told myself I was spoiled and had come to expect too much from doctors. I told myself that most surgeons were like that. I told myself that they had to be that way, and that it made them better when they were not caught up in the emotion of it all. I told myself that I had no reason to complain because there are plenty of parents out there every day with real reasons to worry. It’s all fuzzy to me now, but I believe I even used words like “silly” and “over-reacting” and “hormonal” in this internal rant.

I essentially told myself to shut the fuck up. And I did.

They wheeled my son off for surgery and I sat down in the doughy and stained chair to wait. Resigned, I picked up a newspaper and there was the news that Robin Williams had just ended his life the day before. That was all it took. I burst out into sobs, days of frustration mixing with worry and angst and grief at such a tragic loss. Because you see, like many of you, I grew up with Mork. I moved onto him after the Fonz wasn’t cool anymore. My friends and I actually said “Nanoo-nanoo” and I never did get, but oh my, did I want a pair of those rainbow suspenders. Then, as an adult, I got to appreciate his intellectual brilliance in addition to his artistic talent and timing, marveling at how smart he had to be deliver that fantastic political-cultural-comical shit so fast and furious. It was dazzling. And then he could switch gears and deliver these heart-felt dramatic performances. Mind blowing, he was.

And now he’s gone. And I’m crying.

Fast forward a week, and my son is at home with me, bandaged foot (minus the splinter) propped up on the couch. Admittedly, I used that convalescing time to go on a bit of a Robin Williams movie bender. It was cold and raining outside. We both love movies. I had been holding out watching Dead Poets Society with him, though, because it had been so long since I’d seen it I couldn’t recall if it was appropriate (it wasn’t). And how ironic, with the suicide theme. But it a conversation is sparked for us about education, and how the best moments of learning can feel so amazing – so alive. I play for him this scene where Robin Williams’s character, John Keating illustrates the power of a poem (Walt Whitman’s Oh Me, Oh Life)  to evoke desire, to ignite dreams, to call forth inspired action.

We start talking about his move into middle school in a few weeks and how this new community he was about to enter favors an expeditionary model for learning. I smile, knowing that he’s about to be introduced to one of my favorite ways to learn – the kind of experiences that are electrically-charged, powered by an entire community, shared freely like a productive virus, and entirely memorable. The kind of experience that sneak up and teach you without realizing you’re learning. I start to get more and more animated (frothy mouthed at this point, I’m sure) about how awesome learning feels when it’s charged with excitement, possibility and a sense of adventure.

We talk about that line from Walt Whitman’s poem: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse” and what that means. The gift of a life. The choice that is ours to make. Daily. The footprint that is your distinct mark to leave on this world. Your verse – a legacy, an impression, a contribution. All yours. For us.

The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

Then I ask him the same question Robin Williams asks his students in that scene: What will your verse be?

As a side note – and an ironic twist of fate – Apple used the voice-over from that same Dead Poet’s clip when they launched their iPod Air TV ad campaigns back in January of this year. Gives me chills watching it. Every. Time. It describes why I do what I do in the world. All those verses just waiting to be written…or not. Frothy stuff.

As another side note, I’m fairly certain most of that conversation I had with my son went over his head. I’m also relatively sure it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me. Thankfully, wise and gracious kid that he is, I think he got that impression, too (the frothy spittle probably gave me away…), and lucky me, he didn’t make a big deal about it.

But here’s what I’ve concluded having come out the other side of living that story: it is a big deal.

My verse. And contributing it to the play we are all living.

That’s what I traded in when I told myself to shut the fuck up that morning. That’s what I thwarted when I silenced myself with shame. That’s what I started to give up, to hand over when I trash-talked my instincts and mocked my needs.

My verse. My voice.

It’s not “silly”, it’s honest. I wasn’t being “hormonal”, I was experiencing blatant sexism. I wasn’t “over-reacting”, I was being bullied and feeling invisible.

So thank you, Robin. For reminding me of the gift I – we all, each one of us – have been given. And thank you for reminding me it is – and has always been – my choice as to how I use it. Or don’t. Thank you for making me laugh first, and cry later, which helped me to stand up a bit taller and feel a little lighter. Thank you for asking me – us all – that question time and time again, which serves as a reminder that we can choose to write that verse with each new day.

I know what my verse will be.

Actively Disrupting Normal

Posted August 7th, 2014

Crossroads-tracks-flickrIf I had a file folder in my office labeled “BIG DOINS” it would be bursting at the seams right about now.

Whitney Johnson calls what I’m doing “disrupting myself”. That sounds about right. I first heard her own disruption story at Business Innovation Factory’s annual summit (#BIF7) and something about her strategic and systematic approach to creating change resonated with me. It was brave and badass. Not for the faint of heart. Unlike the myriad of circumstances that can intervene and bump us off course (downsizing, illness, markets crashing, bubbles popping), “disrupting” by her definition is about consciously setting about altering your course with the intention of making space for something new to move in and/or reveal itself.

That’s what I’m doing. Disrupting myself to beat the band.

Most days this has me over-the-moon excited and chomping at the bit. But some days – especially last week, when I was making decisions and pulling triggers – it had me saying holyshitholyshitholyshit. Here is what I know to be true, though. What always helps me to navigate these moments in life – when my toes are curled and gripping the edge in anticipation of taking a leap of faith – is to tell my story.

That, my friend, is where you come in.

I’m going to crack open my bulging file and let you in on what’s going down – and up and over. I want some witnesses. I want to celebrate the abyss I am flying into with wild abandon. It’s what I ask of the audience at my SheSpeaks events…to catch the stories as they are being told, even lived. You don’t need to understand all of it, respond to it, or even agree with it. Just bear witness to it. And do me a favor if you will, and hold me like you love me while I lay it all out. That helps, too.

I’m taking all of August off. Again.
2012-10-06 11.26.26Last year, I made the decision to finance a mini-sabbatical for myself. One delicious month off where I wouldn’t be in the office or work with clients. Far from a personal retreat in Bali, it was more of a logistical stop-gap measure brought about by the fact that we didn’t have camp/childcare coverage for August. Plus, it secretly scratched my Spicoli-sized itch I get nearly every August that tempts me to play hooky (everybody does it…), blow it off (it can wait…), jump ship (you only live once), fuck convention (it’s boring) and chillax in my flip-flops like my life depends on it. Now let me be clear: enjoying this time isn’t what’s hard. In fact, I often joke that if vacationing were an Olympic sport I’d be a serious contender. No, the hardest part is authorizing myself to take it, and trusting that I will have a reason to come back.  Believing that an investment in me is, in fact, an investment in my business. The truth of the matter is, I do. I believe in unplugging and leaves of absence and don’t want to wait for a cosmic 2×4 to need to run interference in my life (again) to make that happen. I know life is short. And my long summer days with young kids, coloring with chalk in the driveway, having water fights and doing delicious amounts of absolutely nothing are seriously limited. So last year, they – my kids were my excuse. This year, I am. Actually, scratch that…this year I realized I don’t need an excuse. I’m taking this month off – August – off again. Period. I am a fierce champion for my clients taking bold and badass leaps of faith fueled by courage and a strong hunch. This is me matching their courage stride for stride. Because I can. So I will see you in September, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed and full of fresh new me-ness.

I’m starting a men’s group this fall. Ready or not.
This one has me throw up in my mouth a little, I’m so excited. For years, I’ve had this idea of forming a men’s group. Unfortunately, I’ve also had a rather loud and obnoxious voice of doubt saying, “you can’t do that, you’re a woman!”. So I waited for someone else to do it. I even approached several men I know about the idea, suggesting what a great idea it would be and offering to help them get it going. Nothing. Nada. This year, I finally said “fuck it” to that loud voice in my head.The Men I Know I raised my hand, called on myself, and started talking aloud to others about it. What I discovered is that it’s a good idea. And a timely one. So today, I’m thrilled to announce that not only have I designed the men’s experience I envisioned, but I’ve met with seven men who are interested in participating and it’s nearly full. So it’s happening. Finally.

I’m writing a book. For real.
For those of you who have been following me and supporting me over the years, this might not be news. But it is. Because although I have talked about it a lot – in my writing, on stage, with my clients – it wasn’t moving forward. It. Just. Wasn’t. I’ve had some promising fits and starts over the past year after I set that intention, but nothing of substance that lit me up enough to morph a daunting task into a I-have-to-keep-going-with-this-or-I’ll-explode experience (the latter is where I do my best writing, by the way). But all that changed earlier this summer. I upped my ante with my own coach, got fierce with my time, and enlisted a KICK-ASS posse of people to be my “batch-catchers”, essentially creating a reason for me to write each week. At this point, I will bow down and kiss the feet of my 12 devoted BCs…without you reading my shizzle weekly I would be a hot mess of constipated words. I would also like to give a shout out to the amazing, Melissa McCarthy and her performance in Bridesmaids, which inspired me to use the phrase “it’s comin’ outta me like lava” to describe my process of writing these days. So. Stand. Back.

And please pardon my absence on this blog, Facebook, Twitter, my monthly Touchstones and all other forms of social engagement while I unleash the hounds, inflate a creative bubble around me, and ride this beast of goodness I’m on until it’s done. It helps to lower the cone of silence as I dig into and make this particular form of art. And yes, of course I’ll still be seeing my coaching and consulting clients as I do this…as well as my women’s circle and my men’s group. I’m only disrupting myself, I’m not completely bat shit crazy.

I’m taking a year-long hiatus from SheSpeaks. Gulp.
Lael Sourcing - Melissa Mullen PhotographyThis was perhaps the biggest decision I made recently. If you’ve been to any one of the SIX SheSpeaks I have held over the past three years, you’ll know that this evening of women’s storytelling I offer is near and dear to my heart. You’ll also know it’s typically sold out in advance, being one of my most popular events. But every time I get off stage from that event, a number of people approach me in person or over email and say, “so when are you going to write a book?” I have been asked, encouraged, and thumped on the back for years, by clients and strangers saying they wanted to read the book I would someday write, which has felt equally awesome and intimidating. In many ways, it was this encouragement that enabled me to make this hard decision to cancel the Winter (Dec 4, 2014) and Spring (May 2015) SheSpeak events. Which I have done. Sigh. Gulp. The five speakers I had lined up for my December SheSpeaks “Swagger” have all graciously and enthusiastically accepted my invitation to join me on the stage NEXT December instead of this one. Hard, hard, hard. But right, right, right. Write. That’s what freeing up this creative space is about. Gathering up that space and creative mojo and channeling it into my book, instead of preparing more bite-sized pieces for the stage. Lawd, I hope this is worth it. My toes are still sore from hanging onto the edge of this one. But somewhere deep in my heart, I thought I heard a deep sigh. And a resounding “yes”.

So there it is. My new normal. Or at least the latest series of disruptions I’m invoking to deliver me to its doorstep. Truth be told, I’ve always thought “normal” was a bit over-rated, preferring to identify with the “Abby Normal” set as per Young Frankenstein.

So scary? Toe-curling? Vomit producing? Nail-biting? Sure. Risk tends to have that effect on people. We’re only human.

But Thrilling? Edge-of-your-seat suspense? Eye-popping excitement? Feeling wide awake to life and how it’s unfolding? You betcha.

That’s me. Abby. Abby Normal. Shaken, not stirred.

Being Raised By A Place

Posted July 27th, 2012

Last week I heard a phrase that resonated deeply with my soul. And in that moment, a large chunk of my life – both personally and professionally – went “click” and just fell perfectly into place.

I was listening to one of the women of my In Her Words writing experience read her selection for the week. She was sharing her most recent realization about her trip to her grandparent’s lake, and how it instantly connected her to her favorite parts of herself. Almost without her realizing it. Like magic.

“It’s possible to be raised by a place” , she concluded.

That’s when everything clicked into place for me and I had a moment of crystal clarity.

I was raised by a place, too.

Way back in the day (’85-’91 to be exact), I worked at an overnight summer camp on a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. I found my way to that camp out of sheer grit and determination. We didn’t have a lot of money back then. My single mom was doing her best to make ends meet, while at the same time managing to make life a marvelous adventure for “just us girls.” We were a rock-star team, my mom, my sister and I.

But when I was 15 I was craving an adventure. I had just moved to a new town and I was having trouble fitting in. I wanted a do-over. I wanted a fresh start where no one knew me. So when my mom was home sick one day from work, I rested the phone on her belly (considerate, eh?) and asked if she could find me and my best friend a job at a summer camp. I had heard tales of summer camps from my mom all my life, and was ready for some of my own. When I came home from school that day, my mom’s fever had broken and she proudly announced she had gotten us jobs that summer.

And that’s how I found my way home…to the place that raised me.

So what if my job was in the kitchen, scraping dishes and running the Hobart? So what if I smelled like rotten milk most of the day? I was 15 and was with my best friend in New Hampshire for the entire summer. That year turned out to be the beginning of an amazing seven-year stretch of magical time, in which I was a counselor, water front director, CIT (counselor in training) director and ultimately, girls’ camp director.

I became me in this place.

I discovered I was a leader. I was given immense responsibility and I watched in utter amazement as I rose to the occasion time and time again. I fell in love many times over those summers – with the place, with the sounds, with the smells, with my independence, with New England, and with a handful of sweet and saucy chocolate pie-eyed boys. This place taught me to believe in myself and to believe in the capacity of others. It taught me the power of community. It taught me what it feels like to truly belong and be part of something bigger than yourself.

Now if you’ve ever been to an overnight camp as a kid or if you’ve ever worked at one as a teenager or adult, you might know what I’m talking about. In reading this, you might have instantly been transported back to that place, and find yourself grinning ear to ear as you’re reading this. I don’t blame you one bit. It happens to me, too.

So it’s no wonder it still makes me smile with gratitude. This place raised me.

Years later, when I created SheChanges and was interested in offering an opportunity for women to come home to themselves, to remember who they are, and to tap back into the most powerful and nourishing parts of themselves, I though of camp and the place I was raised. In 2008, I offered my first women’s retreat, and I called it Homecoming. This women’s retreat of mine, held on a beautiful lake in Maine, is my love letter to my time at Camp Coniston. So whenever anyone asks me how I got the idea for my retreat, I smile and give a nod to the place that raised me.

Its spirit is alive in me. And at Homecoming.

Author’s note: Special thanks to the woman who so graciously granted me permission to use her phrase and share a bit of her story. You know who you ar