Dedication

This trip and this series of essays and conversations would not have been possible without the help of my Kickstarter sponsors. You not only funded this trip but you were my encouragers and you had my back all through this process. You amaze me. Thank you for believing in me and my dreams. Dreams evolve and change, as this one did. There are many reasons why I've chosen to publish these stories this way, but the main reason was a gift to you. These people and their dreams and stories changed my life and helped heal me. I hope they will do the same for you. 

Special thanks to: Ronne Rock, Megan Webb, Randy Langley, Rachel Zink, Libby Norcross, Mary Ann Rouse, Ashlee Rohnert, and NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE without the amazing Sarah Miller.

Take my hand. We have stories to live and dreams to build. Leave broken in the dust. Launch out, brave heart. The time for mutiny has come.

Chapter 1: Why Not You? Why Not Now?

 

I guess you could say the Mutiny began because of all the walking.

By walking, I actually mean walking. It has always been my way of working through a thing. So that’s what I did. Every morning at 5:00 a.m. Every afternoon at 5:00 p.m. Days and months of pounding at a dusty canal trail.

Walking was my way out of grief and into the adventure of living. But the walking; that was a hard thing. I walked so I could breathe. It was a way for me to survive on the days that were too dark for me to do anything else. When I couldn’t sit in front of a computer screen or speak to a client or face someone asking how I was; when I couldn’t live life, I walked. I just kept walking.

Las Vegas sunrise behind her glitter.

The idea of a pilgrimage first settled into my skin long before the walking. It appeared at the fresh beginning of the new year. I like to blame Peter and his plan to walk the Camino in Spain. Peter is an English gentleman I met just as 2014 was rearing its ugly head. Our paths crossed at a conference I was attending in Las Vegas. Unable to face another holiday with the ugly of my impending divorce weighing on me, I left Phoenix to get away for the New Year. In the Arizona desert I felt alone, but in Vegas I would see friends and clients.

It was harder than I thought facing my friends with the news that my marriage was ending. Their sorrow, the “why’s” and what felt like pity was an uncomfortable burden to carry. I had managed to escape some of their questions one morning as I sat waiting for an event to begin when I heard a soft voice speak, “May I sit here next to you?” I looked up to find the kindest eyes in the face of a middle aged man. Something about his manner put me at ease. He was rest in the middle chaos. Within a few minutes of conversation, it also was clear to me I had found a storyteller.

Peter with one of our friends, Chris. Chris is the weirdo with the container on his head.

Peter doesn’t just tell a story. He breathes it.

He carries you along with him and you are there in the moment. You will get caught away, laugh, and end up in a bout of tears. I did. Somewhere between him traveling 7,000 miles to grill out hamburgers for his family on an Australian beach and his explanation of his work in Eastern Europe, I found myself completely lost in his story. And then he said it.

“I’m taking a pilgrimage this year, setting aside forty days and walking across Spain. Forty days of contemplation.”

Something inside me awoke from it’s broken slumber. A pilgrimage. I needed that. I needed to remember who I was, I needed to find my why. I wasn’t sure about much in the world anymore and I knew even less about myself.

But I couldn’t walk across Spain. Forty days was a long time. I was in the middle of a divorce. My life was shredded; Mardis Gras confetti the day after a parade. Who was I to be contemplating a journey like this?

We finished our conversation, promised to reconnect before the end of the conference and went our separate ways. And things got busy. I didn’t forget our conversation but I forgot to look him up. The days were filled with running from one coffee to the next with potential clients and the nights were one network event after another. One evening, in an exhausted state, my friend Jared pulled me down in a chair next to him outside one of the meet-ups.

“How are you?” he asked, “I mean, really. How are you, really?”

“Honestly? I’m pretty f-d up right now. And I’m so afraid I’m going to screw everything up,” I began to cry. My mask had been firmly in place, but the direct question and lack of sleep from the past few days took me down.

A very terrible picture of Jared and I.

He put his arm around the back of the cold metal folding chair I was draped over. “You are not going to screw everything up. You are brave. You are stronger than you know and you are a warrior.” He looked me in the eyes, “Melissa Hawks, you are special. You change the world.”

And for a moment, I believed it. Words are powerful that way. Spoken in the proper time and with a firm resolution, words remind us of who we are.

The very last day I sat in the middle of a smoky casino Starbucks.

I was just ending a conversation with a few friends when Peter walked through the entrance and joined us. After a few moments, they headed off to their final conference sessions and he and I were left alone.

It was one of those moments in time you remember. The kind which soften around the edges and give a little at the center but the feel of them never changes.

“I’ve been thinking about your pilgrimage,” I said, “it inspires me to want to take my own but I can’t take forty days out of my life. That’s crazy.” I could only imagine what my family and friends would think. Their opinions weighed heavy on me. Here I was already blowing my life to bits by doing something several of them had made their disapproval clear about, getting a divorce. How could I take forty days and go gallivanting about somewhere as well?

He looked at me with a gentle fierceness and said, “Why NOT you, Melissa? Why NOT now? And how many days DO you have left?”

His last question left me shaken because I knew the answer to that question. It sounds a bit odd, but I did. It’s pretty rare to know that answer. In fact, unless you are in a Nicolas Cage movie, how often can you respond with certainty when someone asks: “how many days do you have left?” But I did know the answer. I had just completed an interactive journal called Five. On one page was an equation which led to the conclusion that I was in possession of approximately 16,000 days, barring no sudden acts of God.

“What are forty days compared to the many?” he wondered. And then he asked if he could pray for me. In the middle of that gloomy casino coffee shop, he placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered a quiet prayer. No one stopped. No one stared. It wasn’t loud and obnoxious. But it ripped me open and the dream which lived deep in the visceral part of me began to mutiny.

Forty days. I could do it. Not in Spain and not alone. I began to imagine my own pilgrimage and as I did an idea formed in my head. What if mine was a pilgrimage of people? People who had impacted my life in some way. Not just friends and family but people who were living their dreams and whose work had somehow shaped what I was doing.

Six months prior to the conversation with Peter, a name had popped into my head one day. Mutiny of Dreamers. I didn’t know at the time what it meant but I knew I liked the feel of it. In late October I began writing lines and paragraphs which seemed to flow with this name. A dream that mutinies.

It was early November the first time I said the words out loud. In print actually. “I think I’m writing a book. I’m kind of scared,” I told an acquaintance. He asked me why I was afraid and I said, “I guess I’m afraid someone will tell me it’s a crazy idea.”

“Why would you care if someone tells you it’s crazy? People tell me what I do is crazy almost everyday.”

And so the idea of the crazy book and this crazy pilgrimage of people collided in my head. What if I talked to each of them about their dreams? What if I discovered what the journey was like for them? What if they told me the story of what happened when their dream mutinied and took over? What if I learned that there was some sort of rhyme and reason and process in what looked like beautiful chaos?

I am a story scientist. An anthropologist of dreams.

I didn’t just want to hear their stories, I wanted to understand. To take it apart. To put it back together. To comprehend. To piece together the what, why, and how. To understand how their threads connect to mine and our stories weave together into the greater narrative.

This was how my dream mutinied; this pilgrimage.

It would take nine months and walking the same route every day for one thousand miles of blisters and tears across the desert to get there. But I did. Every step since has been just as difficult but worth it. Once you are ready to fight, once your dream has mutinied beyond an idea, through your grief and some shade of healing, then you can begin chasing it. Don’t be naive. It is blood and sweat and hard work. There isn’t much glory and you don’t get it handed to you just because you were crafted for it. Figure out what you love and what you’re good at and then work your ass off to make it a reality. That is what each of the dreamers in this story have done. It is what I did and am doing. And, Dreamer, when you’re ready, it is what you’ll have to do…

Chapter 2: I Believe In Redemption Stories

September 2014

“I’m taking a forty day road trip across the country. A pilgrimage to meet with people who are living their dreams. Be one of my people.” I was curled up in a rocking chair on a cold tile floor as I typed the request, August in arid Scottsdale, AZ clawing at my window and my soul.

image by Jeremy Stanley for Kate Spade, On Purpose — Masoro, Rwanda, 2014

“What?!? That’s amazing. Are you really doing this? How? When? Where are you going? And yes, I want in. I would be honored.” His words tumbled out from somewhere in Rwanda. There to document images and stories of the artisans Kate Spade’s On Purposeline had trained over the past year, he seemed to be spending more time there than his home in Brooklyn.

Jeremy Stanley. He told me once upon a time he had lived in Charlotte. I laughed at that picture. “I didn’t quite fit,” he said. Of course not. “You are hands dirty with the dust of taxis and out loud life and from here to there and ‘where is our next adventure?” I replied. Jeremy fit nowhere and everywhere and maybe that’s part of why I felt drawn to him.

I told him of my plans for the trip and the Kickstarter to fund it and his encouraging words flowing back from the other side of the world fanned the tiny flame of brave inside of me. “I’m working on a side project too,” he said. As his words appeared on my screen about the women he worked with, survivors of rape and genocide, and his desire to show them their beauty, their worth again, something tightened in my chest.

My story wasn’t the same as theirs. My family hadn’t been killed before my eyes. I hadn’t been raped at gunpoint repeatedly by a host of men taking my village. But I knew what it was like to have things taken from you that you didn’t want to hand over. I understood being a strong woman one moment and a broken one the next as a man stood over you.

They were like me. I was like them. We were the same.

I wasn’t ready to tell him this story though. Not when he was a world away and I had never seen his face. Instead I just said thank you. “I have seen so much ugly this year, but this, this is redemptive.”

That is when his words had arrived; the ones about it being a hard time. The ones about redemption and it being a good story. They rocked me. I have always been good at living the life I was supposed to. The outer layer was shellacked and well coiffed and so right. Until I couldn’t anymore. Cracks had begun showing in that layer a few years prior to this conversation I was having and now only tiny pieces of it still existed. How could it possibly still be a good story after everything which had happened?

His words felt true. They felt true and right and I believed the man behind them.

The first time Jeremy and I had a real conversation, he was in the middle of a coup in Thailand and I had just completed a Twitter rant about hot man Pinterest boards. I figured then it was a pretty good indicator of how life would go. His destiny was to be off changing the world in some exotic locale, where as I would just remain exactly where I was, making ridiculously unnecessary points to no one on the internet. But here we were, in the middle of this conversation with these words making me believe maybe I could be more. And I was determined. I would live a good story and and see every piece of it redeemed. It would begin with this trip.

I said goodbye to this bearded man on the other side of the world and got to work.

Something was buzzing.

Something was buzzing and something else was cutting into my armpit while a sharp pain radiated up through my spine and my numbed leg couldn’t move, as though a vine were tying it down. Forcing my eyes open, I looked down to find my phone vibrating on my stomach. My eyes continued further down my body to the computer cord wrapped around my leg. I moved slightly and a cascade of papers slipped from under my arm and onto my face. Clawing them off, I felt the pain again in my back and reached under me to find the pen that went with the papers shoving its way into my kidney.

5:30 a.m.

I had been asleep for four hours. I dragged myself out of bed, threw on some socks and tennis shoes, and slunk into the bathroom to brush my teeth. The person reflected in the mirror was not something I wanted to see. I couldn’t remember if it had been three or four days since I had washed my hair and the dark circles under my eyes were beginning to look like bruises. My phone continued to beep with messages as the East Coast was awake and wanting to talk about the Kickstarter and my trip.

Shoving earbuds into my ears, I tried to stretch out the kinks for a brief moment, then hit the canals while pulling up the day that awaited me. A few more pledges in. Small ones. Not enough to make up for the large donor we had lost the prior day. Just over half way through the fourteen day Kickstarter and my forty day trip had been completely funded. Everyone said it was a miracle and couldn’t believe it had happened so quickly. And they were right. It was too quickly. A donor’s pledge had been vacated on Kickstarter putting me back at just over halfway funded.

I thought about the video I had made to pump up my community.“I believe in redemption stories. I believe in the comeback kid.” But did I really? Part of me believed this trip was supposed to happen. A written in the stars, kismet, piece of my story. But the other part of me, the practical side of me was yelling, “YOU ONLY HAVE SEVEN DAYS LEFT. There isn’t enough time. And you haven’t eaten in two days. This is never going to work.”

As all of these thoughts melded together in my head, I looked ahead of me on the walking path. Someone had lost a bunch of multicolored balloons and they were caught in the highest branches in a stand of trees several feet away. It was probably the lack of sleep and maybe a little bit of the stress; definitely that I hadn’t eaten anything in forty-eight hours played into the moment but I began to melt down right there in the middle of asphalt.

Even if I have to climb the damn tree and cut the strings myself, I will make sure it flies.

What if that was my dream?

Caught between earth and sky, having taken partial flight and straining to sail away towards the sun. It was now stuck instead in the hardened limbs it happened too close to upon launching. Even in my exhaustion, I refused to give up. I snapped a picture with my phone and posted it to one of my Facebook groups, “Even if I have to climb the damn tree and cut the strings myself, I will make sure it flies.” It was settled in my heart.

The next few days were an endless parade of moments caught between my phone and laptop, posting updates and thank you’s. Funders began to filter in and momentum built back up. The day before the end of the campaign, the Kickstarter went over the fully funded mark for the second time. The final time.

Fully funded.

And there he was. The very first person to pop up. Jeremy just happened to see it go over the mark. He made me stop, pause in the chaos and be in that moment. “Tell me what you are feeling right now, in this second. How do you feel?” I sent him a picture of my glowing face and tried to articulate my joy and overwhelmed heart.

And I was reminded of his words that first day when I had told him of the trip.

“I’m sorry about the things you have been facing, but you ARE brave. They are shaping you and your story and it will be redeemed. You will be healed. It will be a hard part of your story but it will be a good story.”

Those sentences in that tiny box on my computer screen unlocked something in my chest and air swooshed into my lungs. It will be a good story. It felt true. There are things people say or you read which aren’t quantifiable. You have no scientific or hands-on proof to back up the words you are experiencing, but the weight of them settles into your gut and they feel right.

The feeling of joy melted very quickly into excitement and a bit of anxiety as I began to prepare for the trip. I was leaving just a week and and a half after the campaign finished up and there was so much to do. My itinerary needed to be finalized, plane tickets purchased, and I found myself beginning to purge things from my life.

One of my friends, Jen, told me about a garage sale she was planning. She had been through a difficult divorce a few years prior. “I’m getting rid of everything he gave me or anything that reminds me of him; all the things he touched are gone. I’m getting rid of the things that no longer serve me.” Those words felt right. That was the moment I decided to go into my adventure without my long hair. It represented too many dark things for me and I was ready to lighten the load.

A few days later I sat in the swivel chair looking in the mirror at my honey haired stylist, Andrea, “Take it off. I’m ready.”

She stared back at me. We had argued for the past two years about how many inches she was allowed to trim from my hair each time I sat before her. I was done being a long haired girl. It had defined me for thirty-two years and it was time to let it go. I was leaving for an adventure in a week and if ever there was a time to be brave; it was now.

Andrea didn’t need to be told twice. She eyed my hair, twisted it into sections, grabbed her scissors, and snipped. Two lengths of eight inches of my hair lay on the counter before me. Lighter. I felt lighter. I looked at the hair on the floor. Pieces of the past on the ground at my feet. No longer attached to my person. I wouldn’t be carrying them into the future with me.

The night before I left, I found myself sitting before the mirror looking at my new short hair and down at my too early already packed bags and it hit me. “Well, obviously. Well, yes. This is who you are. This isn’t shocking. You have found her.” It was as if looking in that mirror I finally recognized myself after all these years. I had yet to walk out the door and already the journey had begun.

Chapter 3: Leave Room for the Unexpected

It was raining the first time I saw her face.

It was raining and I was wearing hot pink rain boots, a navy wool sweater, and my hair was long, curly-frizzy, and stuck out a foot from my head. Her sleek blonde hair hung in waves down her back and she look every inch the West Coast mama that she is.

We are very different, but most days our hearts are similar.

There is an episode of Friendswhere Phoebe insists Ross and Rachel are each other’s lobsters. “Lobsters mate for life,” she tells them and leaving them and us with the image of little crustaceans wandering off down the beach claw in claw. Some people find it in their love relationships and some people find that in their crew, their friends. That’s part of the friendship which developed between Corie Clark and I. She is my lobster.

That rainy February evening was in San Diego the night before Storyline. We’d already known each other eight months and a hundred phone calls and a few traumatic life experiences, but San Diego bonded us. It was there we connected with another writer friend of ours, Nicole Romero, and talked life, writing, God, and healing. They were both on their way in the latter one. I didn’t know it but I had a long way to go.

Corie, myself, and Nicole in San Diego at Storyline

I was a mess when they found me that February but they embraced me right where I was; holding my hand, hugging my neck, talking me off of a few unwise emotional ledges. The following August when I asked both of them to be dreamers I spoke to on my trip, they readily agreed.

I sat down with Corie on her back patio that September day, eight months after we had first hugged each other. The sun shone through the slats in her gazebo and bounced off the water in the mason jars before us. We laughed nervously at the camera on us and immediately dove into the deep end of her work.

She had recently written a book called The Simplicity Project.

As I was planning to write a book or many books, I asked her what brought her to the place of wanting to write.

She leaned in and began to speak, “It just kind of happened. My husband always said told me I should write one. I’ve been writing since I was little, so it makes sense. The more I had my own spiritual awakening and began to realize there was more to life than being a wife and mother. Not that those aren’t enough, but you can take your marriage and your family into your purpose with you. And there’s a way bigger purpose for you. It’s not about “this part of me is married” and “this part of me is mom,” it all goes together. I can’t be a good writer if I’m not a good wife and mom, but I can’t be a good wife and mom if I’m not being who I was meant to be either. I really feel like it is all connected, so I don’t want to leave out any of the parts either. As I started to wake up and realize all of this; I started to write about it.”

This wasn’t the book she wanted to begin with either. She has a book which has been burning in her soul for a long time and when I asked her how it felt to write this one first, she laughed nervously and answered, “This really isn’t my best, it’s my second best. I struggled with it, kind of wanted to put it off. I felt like I needed to share what my struggle was and address it. Everyone has a stumbling block keeping them from their dream. For me it was being stretched too thin. I need to remove those stumbling blocks in order to have time to write. I figured other people had some of those same problems too. I wondered if I should be giving this first book so much attention, but I thought as soon as I take care of this then I can get back to my original plan.”

I was in awe. A community has sprung up around the first book she had written and I wondered how this was all working out. I asked her if that had happened, if writing the book had enabled her to simplify her life.

“I’m forced to live out this,” she told me, trying to speak over the dog snoring in the sun next to us, “There are more things coming from it than I was expecting. It morphed into more. There’s a community which has come into it. Before I lived out the Simplicity Project, I would never have had the time or energy. It’s what I have to do now and I’m fine with it.”

I wondered aloud if everyone has this same battle to fight on their way to living their big dream.

She paused. “I think people struggle with something on the way. There is always somethingstanding in their way which they have control over and they don’t even realize it. I kind of got to the point where I realized if I really want to be a writer and an author there were changes I needed to make. I was the one standing in the way of it. No matter what it is that’s keeping you; it’s usually your own fault. You have to get over it. No one else is going to get over it for you.”

I liked these words. I liked the idea of taking ownership of your life and overcoming obstacles and fighting through. I asked her if this was hard for her; if she had to fight through the idea of change.

“I didn’t necessarily fight it. There are things I still have to do, but I have to be intentional about it. It’s more important to me to address the issues and get them out of the way.”

I thought of all the hard work she had put into her current book and was putting into the day plannershe was hard at work on to accompany it. My mind wandered over my own trip and her future book and I remembered the people who had whispered how easy it was for the two of us, “Do you notice people will say “things justhappen for you?” I asked her.

“Yeah. People just say well you’re just good at that kind of stuff. You’re just made for that, but everyone is made for a purpose. But I decided that I wasn’t going to settle and I was going to go for it.” I agreed with that. Talent and ability are useful but hard work and pursuit is what gets you to where you want to go. When I asked if she thought there was anything that set her apart, she said, “I don’t think you have to be born with it. You can acquire a taste for it." 

"The longer you live your dreams, you realize there is always more…you never arrive.”

The camera turned off without either of us realizing it, but the interview had taken a much more personal turn and we both agreed that it was probably for the best. Through tears and laughter we shared the journeys our dreams were continuing to take us on. They were unexpected and not at all what we had planned.

Kind of like what happened next.

I had planned to meet with Nicole that afternoon to interview her. Nicole Romero is a pastor, writer, and the founder of Love and Making It, an e-course which helps women develop comfort with intimacy. Her story is as beautiful as she is. I was supposed to meet her and as I rounded an Orange County curb in my tiny rental car at ten mph, I heard a crunch. My tire was toast. Somehow I had managed to crush the entire thing. That interview never happened, but it led to Nicole showing up at the house and she, Corie, and I spending an evening gallivanting about town.

We cried while standing in a Pep Boys for an hour. We laughed over whiskey in a nameless chain restaurant. And we held hands and hugged in a suburban driveway as our hearts were knit. Sometimes life mutinies in ways we don’t expect. It takes us on adventures we didn’t plan and ones we’re not exactly sure we want to go on when they begin. It leaves us with a few damages. But if we look for it, there will always be beauty in the unexpected.

Chapter 4: Dreaming Takes Resilience

“We’re going to get you food.”

I think that was the second sentence she spoke to me as I hopped into her car at San Francisco airport. I had hugged the neck of Laura Hale, a friend and client of my branding business for over a year and agreed “food” was a great idea.

Food does not begin to describe what I sat down to in the middle of a walled in Palo Alto garden restaurant on that afternoon. The crust was crisp and slightly blackened, a white sauce warmed it and crack black pepper scattered about its edges and in the very center of it was a sunny side up egg. I cut a slice and closed my eyes as the first bite went down. I was in pizza heaven. She laughed into her salad across the table and offered me some. I refused as politely as one can when their mouth is stuffed with pizza ambrosia.

Shhhh…I’m in heaven.

I told her about the trip thus far and she caught me up on a recent large dinner party which had brought her joy and her family,. Things were not going as she had planned but her life was very full and I loved the life I saw in her eyes.

A few hours later we sat down to discuss her start-up, Generation Grit, and her own Kickstarter which had raised quite a lot of money but had not been completely funded. I was fascinated by her story. I knew she wasn’t a newbie when it came to startups. She was the first official employee of bates, so I began there.

“What was it like building someone else’s big dream?” I asked her over my chamomile.

The sunlight lit her head as tilted it to one side and remembered, “It was amazing. I loved it. I loved building someone else’s dream. Online shopping wasn’t exactly what I wanted to focus my entire life on but it was a really fun job. It’s great being a part of something that started and wasn’t an insta-success. It was a long hard route to figure out. It was a lot of trial and error and listening to people, because things look different in real life than how you imagine them in your head.”

She had worked for them fifteen years before this conversation we were having and I remembered her mentioning earlier how they had just sold the company. “At one point the two of them even stepped down to serve on the board and hiring a CEO who could take it to the next level,” she said.

Handing over your dream to someone else sounded like a painful task to me.

She agreed, “I’m glad I got to see it from afar. From where I was sitting, they did it beautifully and it was all about what made the most sense for the company.”

They sounded like the kind of people who were willing to say “the dream is more important than my role in the dream.” We discussed how difficult that is for most people.We see that in tech. We see that in business all the time; people who just run their companies into the ground.

This led me to ask about her startup, Generation Grit.

She began it to encourage resilience in children, specifically boys, ages 9–12, and it has evolved. I asked her if it felt like the company was her dream or the concept or idea is was her dream? I wondered if she was an activist for these ideas and Generation Grit was just the vehicle for her to present them to the world.

“It is absolutely the idea of living an adventure for kids,” she replied, “it is also about building and creating something. The two come together in Generation Grit and the Kickstarter that we did was really a test for the market to see if this was something people wanted. It was a mixed message. I could argue both sides. I could see my dreams of building things and the passion I have around the issues fulfilled other ways but I’d love to see it happen this way.”

She seemed to have come to a place of peace but I couldn’t help but think that it had to be really hard when you have seen one particular method for making your dream come true and it doesn’t appear to be working itself out.

I wondered what it would take to get her from where she was at to making choices about the future of the company. Laughing, she admitted that she wondered the same thing. I asked her if she was waiting to make the decision because it was a difficult one or because it just wasn’t the right time.

“I’m trying to sit in the awkward space of not knowing either way,”

she answered, after getting up to let the dog out into the still green grass. “The day the Kickstarter ended I knew exactly what I was going to do. I needed to talk to people involved in the campaign and get their feedback while it was really fresh. I needed people who love me to be willing to say the hard things. I needed to talk to the uberfans who were super excited and hear what their feelings were really about. I did all that and it was so helpful. Now I’m sitting in that messy place realizing no matter what happens, there is no perfect answer. There is the element of what I want to do and there is the element of what makes sense given all that information I was able to get. Now I’m just sitting with it.”

Her answer sounded healthy if very uncomfortable to me and the next question seemed to flow out of that. “How is that affecting the other parts of your life?”

She was quick to respond to this, “I have a ton of pent up creativity. I’m just dying to work on something. There are other ways for it to come out besides Generation Grit. It completely affects everything. It affects me at my identity level. If I am not an entrepreneur doing a startup along with my family and everything, who am I and what’s enough?”

I sat there for a moment remembering the shuttle driver at LAX asking me that very question about I was. I remembered having a terrible answer and I wondered if she had a better one, if she had figured it out yet.

“It always comes back to being the beloved child of God,” she said. “It’s at the core of everything and that’s enough. That’s a great place to operate from because then I can pursue the dreams without it tanking me. It may tank me momentarily but it won’t for long. Acting that way doesn’t come naturally for me. I have to remind myself and I have people in my life who point me there when it gets shaky.”

Any dream worth having will be bigger than you.

It’s going to be bigger and wider and deeper than you and at some point you’re going to have to be willing to step out of its way so that it (and you) can grow. That’s painful and maybe a little bit ugly. But the other side of it is worth it. Dreaming is an ever evolving adventure. It will mutiny on you and you’re going to have to ride it out. Be resilient.

Chapter 5: Ugly Selfies: Remember Who You Are

Laci taught me how to swear.

She taught me how to swear and use emojis. I’ll never forget the day she said, “your light is so bright sometimes it will attract moths and fleas. This isn’t your fault. And they don’t get to dim you.”

Laci changed my life. And the evolution of my selfies. We had only ever talked on Facebook and Twitter and the crazy woman invited me to visit her for New Year’s Eve. The unimaginable happened. She gave me the freedom to ugly cry and I bared my soul. Laying out my worst pieces before her, I feared she would turn tail and run. Instead, she said, “Now I really really love you. You are so beautiful. Let’s do ugly selfies together.” And so we did. And they’re stunning. We are ebony and ivory. We take over the room. She makes me stronger and reminds me I am strong.

She knows about light and dark and moths to flames. Laci grew up in Vegas. She’s seen all the glitter and every drop of dirt smudged behind. Somehow she manages to keep shining in the midst of itl. When I arrived that September day on my way across the country, she greeted me with a hug and a silver bracelet. Its delicate loop held a compass. “It’s so in all your travels you can always find home.” I wasn’t sure what that looked like but I hoped I would find it too.

Before she and I sat down to talk, she turned the tables on me. She and her podcasting and business partner, Chris Cerrone,interviewed me about the trip. We laughed and swore and cried a little bit and then the two of us found a quiet space to talk. After telling me about all of her current endeavors, multiple businesses and clients, I asked her when she found the time to breathe, “I don’t have to look for time to breathe,” she said, smiling at me from the corner, “I’m breathing in process. These things I’m doing bring life to me. They fill me up. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be giving my time to them. I’m at a point in my life where my time is far more precious to me than it’s ever been. I don’t give my time to things which are weighing me down anymore.”

Then she began telling me the story of her evolution.

“The past year of my life has been the most transformative in terms of me figuring out who I am. I was in a corporate career that sucked out my lifeblood. I left that to work for another corporate job and it sucked all my creative juices too. When I was first laid off from Cirque du Soleil, I began to look at is a positive thing. I started wondering if I could be a consultant. For so long I had been told I wasn’t good enough, but I thought I would try it out. Through the entire process I kept saying, “now is my time. Now is my time to figure out who I am.” My goal during that time wasn’t to make money, though I needed to…it was to get back to basics and to figure out who the hell I am and get to know my kids again.

I had this moment of no longer being a corporate girl. I didn’t have a title to identify who I was, so I had to give myself one. I finally had to learn to just get the f — — over that but for so many years its what I had lived by. That’s what the world looks like, so it was partially shedding the need to even identify myself. That took about a year. The whole time you tell yourself you’re not worthy of the new chapter in your life and you find the people who remind you that you are.”

Her words tumbled one onto another as her story came rushing out. I knew this story, so many pieces of it echoed my own.

“I was starting to believe the shadows in my head that whispered, “You can’t do this. You’re not enough. You don’t have a college degree. You can’t do this.” I went through about nine months of trying to figure myself out and then was given an opportunity to go back to the corporate world. Within a month, I acknowledged that it wouldn’t be my forever but I was going to use it to get to where I wanted to go.”

I shook my head in agreement. People who are dreamers often hear voices which say “you’re not worthy.” We all have people in our lives who are scared by the dreams we dream and the risks we take. I had a conversation with my dad around the same time as the one with Laci. He had sent me an article about dreamers and doers. I told him there didn’t have to be either/or. The people I was interviewing were both. That’s the only way to get things done. That’s can be make other people feel like they’re not doing enough, which in turn causes them to put down and make us feel unworthy. I asked her how she battled it.

“You get stuck in a box,” she said.

“I’ve always done this. For long time I was thinking if I’m going to be a consultant I’m going to have to be this specific type of consultant. My partner and co-host, Chris, is the first person in my entire life who taught me, “you’re more than this. Stop boxing yourself. You know so much more than this. You’re undoing all the good you’ve done.” He started pointing out the good in me and the things I knew. Because of that, it’s forced me to go down the path to stop believing the lies and begin believing in myself. Community makes the world go round. Making sure you have people around you who will cheerlead you and point out your faults is important. Who you surround yourself with is the most important part of being a dreamer.”

She told me that she didn’t believe in cutting people out of her life unless they were just completely toxic, “Instead, I’m choosing wisely who I invest my time and energy in. I’m a big believer people come in and out of your life for a reason. When they go, I let them go but I know they’ll always be there. I had to learn how to dream again too. Sometimes there is a need to sever all ties but it’s that much more difficult to pick up all the pieces if there is supposed to be back in your life again.”

I agreed with this, “Yes,” I said, “When you surround yourself with enough positive influences there is not enough room for the negative ones.”

Her words reminded me of the community surrounding me, of how she had spoken into me so many times, “Don’t lose yourself. Don’t forget who you are. In the middle of the chaos. In the absolute crap that is this moment. Remember who you are.” Which are the words I would find in my inbox one morning from a friend an ocean away. “You are Melissa Hawks.” The message whispered in middle of the darkness swallowing me whole. “You are a light, a song, and a star. Remember who you are.”

You may be forgetting who you are today.

Because today is made up of rusted shut doors and steel toe boot in the gut moments. And the road is dusty. Your eyes are so filled with grit, you can’t see beyond the very next step. Stop right there in desert road and the waiting and dust and the why and when and “but how?” I want you do something for me.

Pause. Pull out your phone. I don’t care who is watching. Turn that front facing camera at you and capture the beauty that is you. In this moment. In the center of the screwed up situation you’re wading through. Or at the top of victory mountain. Wherever today has brought you. Build a monument to this moment with that selfie. Don’t be afraid to make it an ugly one or beautiful one or anything that shows exactly who and what you are in this moment.

The voices and events and shattered bits and past that are doing their best to define you are all liars. Look at that picture. See the truth. Hey. YOU. You are a light. A song. And a star. Look at you. You’ve made it. Remember who you are.

Chapter 6: Long Term Space Travel, JFK, and Dreaming

Geoff Notkin is a story come to life. In our short few hours together, I heard many of his tales. He was in a punk band back when punk was legit. He knew the Ramones, went to art school with Spiegleman, and has now made a name for himself as a meteorite hunter and tv host. If I shared our entire conversation, I would have to write a book specifically about him. Instead, I’m excerpting a piece of our discussion I found to be the most interesting.

It began with a comment about long-term space travel and evolved from there. Imagine all of Geoff’s words in a lovely, British accent.

Geoff: Our ideas come from our imagination. In my dreams, I’ll be playing with a band again and I’ll be playing a fantastic song. I’ll wake up and write it down. The next morning I’ll take a look and it’s just something like “don’t forget to polish your boots.” My unconscious mind had created this thing that was so realistic it bleeds over into my waking world. I want to pull it over there but it didn’t quite happen. We do this every day as a creative person. It’s very rich, our inner world, so if you could learn to spend a lot of time immersed there, like you do in your dreams, then long distance space-flight and other endeavors where physical activity is limited could be more palatable.

Melissa: My question is how do you transition back into the real world? If you’re having multi-generational long distance space flight or teaching multi-generations to live in this way, how do you transition them back into living in the real world once you reach your destination? You have people living in these dream states now. Think of those who become addicted to drugs or live in video games or get addicted to Netflix marathons or are consumed with online relationships and refuse to have real life relationships — we see that in society now. When you imagine what that would be like long-term in a contained space, how do you transition that back? You’re starting a whole new society, in a new space, on a new planet or wherever you’re taking that spaceflight to. That’s going to take serious real life community and interactions to make happen.

Geoff: That’s true and something I’ve learned with Astrosociology Research Institute, I’m on the editorial board so I peer review a lot of papers, and one of the topics which has come up frequently from authors and experts is those kind of lifestyle choices like being consumed with Netflix or fantasy gaming. Some of these things involve other people but they typically don’t involve the physical presence of another person. A lot of these escapes that the modern technological world offers us are solitary ones. There’s an interesting phenomenon long duration astronauts talk about. They say, “we don’t get any privacy. Ever. Except in the tiny toilet.” And yet there’s a feeling of pervasive loneliness among a lot of them. They’re in close physical proximity to others but they still feel lonely. Perhaps because these are people who have been selected as companions for them, rather than people they themselves have selected as companions in their own lives.

I find it fascinating that proximity itself doesn’t alleviate loneliness.

Melissa: Do you think part of the issue on the International Space Station is because the astronauts are from different countries and there is a sense of separation in that too?

Geoff: Yes, and again this is something which has come up in work for the institute. It is easy for someone who is joining the group to feel like or be viewed as an outsider. Because you have a very small group who’ve been working together for a very long time under adverse situations, not unlike the military. An outsider joins the group and I think there is a natural tendency for clique-ishness to happen. I’m not suggesting our astronauts do this. I think they’re very well-adjusted people.

Melissa: I think it’s a tendency no matter how well-adjusted people are.

Geoff: And then of course there is language barriers, ethnic background, different religious and political viewpoints, but I think overall it’s a great thing. We have to deal with these things if we’re going to go forward as a species and certainly if we’re going to embark on very long duration spaceflight. These are issues which are very important. They are new to us; relatively new to humans. We have to think about them and explore. Our longest spaceflight with people have involved trips to the moon, Skylab, ISS. Even with ISS and Skylab, there still may be a subliminal sense of connectedness because you’re orbiting the Earth. You could go back if you have to. There are crew changes. But if you’re on a ten year flight to a destination in deep space, there is no going home. And what do you do if someone starts to develop character issues which are bad for the crew?

Melissa: People change and evolve. That can happen in months, let alone ten years.

Geoff: Right. So, I find it exciting that we have to address these problems, that we’re looking at them now. Because these are questions that a space-faring society asks. These are not questions a society wastes time thinking about if they do not have spaceflight. I’m not a fan of hypothetical questions. These are real questions. How do we populate a ship? How can we get people to Mars and back? Can we establish a colony there? The answers are “yes.” We just have to figure out the nuts and bolts.

Melissa: I met a guy at the airport this morning who was from New Zealand. He had been staying with a friend who was an astronaut training at Houston Johnson Space Center. He was telling me how exciting it was for him because there isn’t a space program back home. I hadn’t really thought of that before. That sounds obtuse but I’m so accustomed to our programs. In this context, it makes me wonder how we will represent humanity as a whole for long-term space travel, with so few countries having space programs. Will we represent all of the human race or just those who can afford it?

Geoff: Indeed. US and Russia are the countries who have probably spent the most on space, but we’ve also had astronauts from other countries.That’s a great question. I don’t think it’s just the countries who paid for the hardware who should get to put people in space. Private sector space exploration is very near and dear to my heart. It’s a very exciting time to be alive when it comes to that. I love NASA and am sad to see how badly funded they currently are, but why does the government have to do this? The private sector is historically more quick and efficient than the government.

Did the Wright Brothers have any funding? No. They did it on their own. This is the case for most great inventions in history. Or at least many. Like the aircraft, radar, the steam engine, the telescope. Many discoveries that changed world were made by small groups of people without government support or sometimes in the face of government or religious adversity. Galileo is a good example. Until the modern era, spaceflight was too expensive for the private sector. Now we have numerous billionaires, much more widely available technology, and a global community that is interested, so it not onlycan happen, it is.

We will see real space tourism, asteroid mining, and hopefully colonization of other planets and asteroids; those things which were dreamed about in the era of JFK. He inspired the world and not many people get to do that. He changed the way we want to do things. He brought the US and manufacturing and industry together to do something that was just impossible at the time. When Kennedy made that famous speech about putting a man on the moon, he didn’t run it by NASA first to do a feasibility study. I’ve spoken to a lot of NASA employees over the years and they were shocked by it. They said, “That technology didn’t exist. It wasn’t a question of making it better. We had to actually make it.” To inspire people to that level? Many of the designers and engineers I’ve spoken to said, “We did it for President Kennedy.” Even though he was gone, they were determined to get that landing on the Moon.

We’ve been talking about dreams and determination. That’s dreaming on the biggest possible scale. That’s one person saying, “I believe we can get to the Moon and back in less than ten years.”

Chapter 7: The Rhythm of Rest

I was already exhausted as I made my way into the brightly lit farm to table restaurant that morning.

An awkward twenty minutes early for the first interview of the day, I ordered a green smoothie and wheeled my suitcase over to a table in the corner. It was sat down before me a few short minutes later and I felt new life begin to seep into my bones as I set my phone to the side and focused on pouring nutrients down my throat. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone approaching.

Joy Eggerichs sat down before me and looked slightly disturbed at my green juice. “Is that all you’re having?” she asked, trying to politely keep the look of disgust off her face. I assured her it was not and over a banana walnut pancakes and eggs, she plied me with questions. It didn’t surprise me that her questions started with my reasons for the trip and quickly entered into relational space. Her curiosity was genuine and I saw my own reflection in it. She was asking to learn. I had found myself doing the same thing on this trip. Breakfast ended quickly and we headed across the street to Powell’s so I could as questions of her.

Her story began seven years ago with the ending of a relationship. This lead her to take four months away at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, an intentional living community. She talked about how she had arrived late in order to avoid the “getting to know you” sessions. God apparently laughs at our plans. Shortly after arriving, she broke her leg and was laid up. This forced her to rely on her fellow community members. As they came to bring her food and visit her, she talked to them and asked them questions and they asked her questions. About…..you guessed it; relationships.

After leaving L’Abri and heading back to the states, she returned to working for her parents organization, Love and Respect, starting an arm for the younger crowd called Love and Respect Now. This was a place where millennials, whether single, married, or divorced, could ask questions and explore the topic of love and relationships. They asked and Joy answered a lotof questions. This all came together in The Illumination Project, a small group study, four years in the making which was published in 2014. She told me the answers to all the questions asked of her over the past seven years began with these three broad statements.

Live your relationships in the light
Seek older, wiser counsel
God is not trying to trick you

“This is the culmination of a dream fulfilled,” she said, “and now I’m just tired. I talked to my dad and he suggested I go on sabbatical. That’s the plan for January (of 2015). I plan to go for four months and meet with different spiritual directors and people who have mentored me and volunteer with different service organizations and see what’s out there.”

January was seven years from her time away at L’Abri.

The time had come again for rest and refocus. “There are ways to incorporate the rhythm of rest in our lives,” her voice was strong and confident as she said these words, “We have to work for it. I save my money. I prioritize stillness. I saw what came out of seven years ago and what came out of being at L’Abri. I believe something will become clear out of this time though, I don’t know what that will be.”

As she spoke about her quickly approaching sabbatical, she mentioned a Mother Teresa quote she had recently heard and said, “I realized I don’t know who the poor in spirit are around me. Social media has done so much good for connecting people in the world. I have a lot of fun with it, but how much am I missing out from engaging the poor in spirit in my community because I’m online?”

We paused for a moment to ponder this thought and discussed the different characters we had run into on social media, but found ourselves returning to this idea of rest.

“I never would have called myself a creative,”

she seemed surprised that she was saying it even then, “living in this amazing city here with all these creative people. But, I’ve realized that I am a dreamer. I am creative, just in a different sphere. If you don’t create the space, you can’t create. That’s why you need the rhythm of rest. That’s why I go to a cemetery everyday, to remind myself that it’s going to end…”

“Wait, do you mean seminary?” I asked.

“Nope, cemetery. It’s beautiful. I call it my cemetery. That sounds weird. One of my friends sent me a website of the top ten cemeteries in the world and I think it should be called ‘See Before You Die’ and I looked to see which ones I’d been to and mine was number nine. I was like, ‘crap, now people are going to start coming.”

We laughed and the conversation began to drift to other things. I couldn’t help but be in awe at the point in her story which she had reached. This was the fulfillment of one of her dreams and she was preparing for a moment of transition. Sometimes we talk so much about dreaming that we forget that as we do, we attain. After we realize, we must rest. That’s Joy. Dream. Do. Rest. The story of a dream accomplished and the search for another.

Chapter 8: Me Too: Telling a Story That Matters

Branden Harvey came bounding through the door of Powell’s as Joy and I finished up our interview.

That’s Branden in a word; bounding. Though it may have the connotation of a haphazard attempt at a goal, he is focused and intentional in his pursuits. What I want you to take away from this description is the energy vibrating off him. The curlie-cue of his bright blonde hair bobbed about as he wrapped me in a hug. If you have never experienced hope in human form, I hope you get a chance to meet Branden. His face reflects the sunniest of days when you’ve been squishing your toes in the white sands of salty seawater. I have never seen a spirit so expansive and embracing in its innocence and wisdom.

His youth surprised me. His accomplishments are many. Branden is a photographer who gained recognition on bothInstagram and Snapchat for his storytelling. He’s done photo shoots for everyone from Clif Bar to the Pope (yes, the head of the Catholic church) and was the first person to tell a Snapchat story inside the White House. He also gives large amounts of time to nonprofits. We crossed paths on various social medias and his heart impacted mine. It still impacts mine. When he took a seat across from me, he started with the story of how he reached this level of success at such a young age. It’s been written abouthere and here. Hard work, pursuit, and being open to the world and opportunities around him have led him down his current path. It’s also taken a willingness to say “no” to things which haven’t fit into his already busy schedule or weren’t in line with his personal mission.

He began to tell me about his trip to Uganda and Rwanda, one which had fit with his mission.

Brought in to shoot portraits for an organization called Beauty for Ashes, who works with thirty different communities in Uganda, his work was to be used to give supporters the chance to get to know the people of these villages. The area of Uganda which Branden visited was one the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) had come through ten years prior. In their destruction, they had kidnapped the young boys, raped the women and girls, and killed most of the men.

“It’s created a situation in the villages where emotionally and physically wounded women were left to care for all the young children. Most of the men who were left felt the pressure of being the only man in the village and turned to alcoholism or drugs.” A couple of women in the area, Akwango Anne Grace Elotu and Enu Rita, began to see to it that the others were taking care of themselves and built a relationship with a woman who had previously worked in Africa and now lived in Colorado, Brandi McElheny. They created an organization to help the villages work together as a community.

Branden’s eyes grew brighter as he talked about how they were brought together by the emotional support which few of them had previously experienced. “Many of them have never heard the words ‘me too.’ There’s power in someone saying, ‘yes, I feel that way too. I experienced that too.’ So, that has really helped them heal. These women are amazing. We just get to facilitate that healing. That’s our role.” Practically speaking this means helping with school fees or clean water or investing in them with livestock to help them run their own businesses.

I wondered if seeing so much pain had brought him sadness in the midst of his work.

It was obvious he felt things deeply and I asked if the pain of what they had experienced weighed on him. “I didn’t feel sad. I did feel heartbroken at times, hearing their stories. But I saw their hope…there was so much hope and I couldn’t help but feel that too. These women are hopeful beyond what I can even imagine. And I felt honored. Honored is what I mostly felt. I was able to be there and experience it. I didn’t feel like they needed me. Me showing up only empowers them more,” he paused and wrinkled his nose, “No. I don’t even like the words “empowers” because it sounds like I have something to give them.” I loved his genuine willingness to note he was still figuring things out. “I’m not sure what the right word is for it,” he continued, “I know that when I leave, those women are still feeling hopeful, whether I’m there or not. I think I’m just telling the story. I am just telling the story so that more people can experience what I have experienced.”

I sit back and hesitate to ask my next question considering what he has and is accomplishing, but it’s on the list so I ask it anyway. “What’s your big dream, Branden? Are you living it now? Is it something you’re in pursuit of? Will it happen in the future?” He doesn’t hesitate. There is no pause. He knows the answer without any thought.

“I’m a storyteller. That’s my big dream. Whether I’m writing or filming or doing a photo shoot. I tell story. All other dreams flow out of that.”

The simplicity of his understanding of where and who he is and where he is headed, left me pondering; would I ever be that sure? I had never known my exact calling. Bits and pieces of various things I was good at tugged at me for my entire life, but certainty had always been lacking. I have felt like a clumsy first draft, but I could finally see my story unfolding. When he said, “Storyteller,” I realized my dream looked similar. That evening on the plane to Austin, I messaged a friend, “I can feel the last vestiges of who I was coming off. I’m leaving the pieces behind in each city. They fall off on plane rides and as I race to reach the next gate for my flight. I am becoming. It is good.”

My friend, Cassi, says, “It is better to have someone fight with you, than for you.”

This is a lesson Branden has learned and is using his abilities and gifts to do. As I was writing this, I did some research on Beauty for Ashes. On the site, one of the founders, Brandi tells a piece of her story. “He [God] began to heal me from deep trauma and to show me how to love hurting people like me. At the time, I had no clue that He was preparing me to love deeply wounded people by allowing me to be deeply wounded. I had no clue that He was healing me so that I might speak and live healing in our hurting world.” The tears slid down my face as I read these words. Becoming is hard work; some of which we must do on our own. But we need others in the trenches with us, someone to help us dig deeper and hold our hands and say, “you got this.” Maybe you’re there. If so, you’re not alone. Brandi and Anne and Enu Rita and Branden and me, we’re all here and we have some words for you. “Me too.”

Chapter 9: Living Wholly

I was captured by her.

I had fallen in love with her formidable words online and bonded over the pieces we shared with one another. Her hair was blonde this time as she sat curled up on the outdoor couch. I had seen it with hot pink streaks. At some point I would see it a shade of the darkest purple. And her lips were red. The kind of red that grabs your attention and reminds you life lives here and is living and will be living regardless of what else is happening around it.

Elora Ramirez is a creative.

She creates with all of her being; including her body. She is a writer, business owner, and story coach who has helped many women tell their stories. That she had put together a writing community completely made up of women fascinated me and so I asked her about it.

“I didn’t plan it that way,” she said, shaking her head. “I created an e-course for writers and women signed up. I never branded myself as working only with women, but since I’ve started I’ve become very particular about that. I think it’s very difficult for women to live knowing we are creative. It is difficult for us to live artistically because we feel like it is selfish or we should be focusing on other things. We feel like we don’t have time to write a book or to make our house something we love being in. Just allowing women that space to breathe and let their creativity out has become really important to me.”

I told her the first four interviews I had scheduled were with women who were wives and mothers as were several more.

“I find many times the women I speak to say, “I’m a wife and a mother or a wife and I can’t really chase my dream because I don’t have time and my husband doesn’t really know what his dream is and if I chase mine it’s going to leave him behind.” On the opposite end of the spectrum are the single ones who often say this, “I’m going to chase my dreams. I’m going to have a career. But, if I do that I’m not going to have time or no one is going to want to fall in love with me because I’m doing all those things or because I’m going to intimidate them.” I asked her what she thought. “Can you find time to be a wife and/or a mother in the midst of all that?” I wanted to know what it looked like to partner in a healthy way with another human while chasing your dreams.

“I think I am my best when I am living wholly,” she said.

“But within my own marriage, I started chafing. A few years ago I got involved with Invisible Children, spent all of my time inspiring people, and wrestled with that tension. At the beginning, my husband, didn’t know if this was one of those phases or something I was truly pursuing. As he watched me and became involved, because we always involve each other, he became inspired, joined me, and became part of my dream. The same happened when we moved to Austin. He wanted to be a chef for years. I pushed him to quit his job and for us to move down here so we could go to school.”

“I gain inspiration when he pursues his dream and he gains inspiration when I pursue mine.”

“I’m a better wife when I know I am doing everything I can to become the person I am supposed to become; whether that be writing a book or starting a business or working with other women or just researching. The moments in which I struggle or feel I’m lacking are often the moments when I am most distressed because I am not creating or pouring into someone else or their dreams. That’s when I am the least fun to live with. I become my best person when I am fully engaging in the artistic process; even if that is during a difficult week, all I do is look for beauty. That’s what I tell women. Sometimes we have seasons where we can’t create; our plates are too full. Look for things that are inspiring to you and look for things that catch your breath and write it down. File it away because in the process you are compiling something you can create from when you do have time.”

I often tell writers the same thing.

I hate to hear people say, “I only write when I’m inspired.” I always think, “how will you ever get any better?” I tell them to write down every thought that comes to them whether it’s okay or kind of good or amazing or terrible. Then come back to it. Set deadlines. Start. Pour out words, come back and edit them.

She continued to share a wealth of knowledge about writing and process and her own experiences. As we packed up and headed to the airport, she told me something which shook me to my core. “Most self-published authors only sell two hundred of their books at most. If they’re very successful, they’ll sell a thousand.” I hugged her and walked into the airport consumed with sudden fear. I had a plan to one day publish traditionally, dreaming of how that might occur, yet it was clear that for few this was a reality.

I messaged my friends Megan and Jeremy and asked both of them, who I thought I was. From another airport, half a world away in Australia, Jeremy spoke these words,

“Screw the noise. The voices that say, “You can’t. You shouldn’t. You won’t. Who in the heck do you think you are? Well, none of that matters.”

He was right. I was like the women Elora and I had discussed, afraid of pursuing their dreams for fear of leaving their families behind, afraid of pursuing a family for fear of leaving their dreams behind. The future was freezing me in boots when I just needed to remain present.

Megan simply replied with a YouTube link. I watched it as I tripped towards my gate through the crowded terminal. I’m sure the people whose feet my suitcase ran over thought I was a little crazy as they looked up to see a wild haired, tiny woman watching her phone and crying through ATX. It was the end of the movie Jobs,

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Resolution filled my insides as I settled into a seat next to the window. I was healing. I was becoming. Elora had said it well today, “I am the best me when I am doing everything to become who I am supposed to be.” Screw the noise.

Chapter 10: Chance Favors the Prepared

My friend, Doug, is a poet. It’s taken him a long time to come to terms with that word, but it’s part of who he is. He is a weaver of words. He’s also an active civilian astronaut at NASA. We sat down last year at Houston Johnson Space Center for the following conversation. This is only a small excerpt from it.

Doug: I went to grad school at Georgia Tech and was a test pilot. It was there I began to realize becoming an astronaut might actually be a reality. It was one of those dreams you convince yourself “I probably won’t get there but I’ll have a career I can be passionate about.” If you look at the number of people who have reached the top of their game in whatever profession they’re in, there was probably a period of time when they thought “I don’t know if this is realistic but I want it for my life.” I wanted to fly. That was always interesting for me. I had no idea I could be working at NASA at this point in my life. I never shared it with anyone as a kid for fear I might be ridiculed. I think we do that to ourselves.

Melissa: We ask ourselves the question, “who do I think I am?”

Doug: Exactly. “How audacious of you?” Along the way I’ve had people speak into my life. I’m very big on how important the spoken word is in our lives. Words can heal. Words can inspire. Words cast away doubt. Words can slaughter as well. Sometimes we open and engage our language before we think about the consequences of our words. Over the years, I have heard a lot of words which were both healing and cutting.

A handful of years ago I heard this proverb, everything we see around us, people we see achieving…like athletes or even someone walking on the moon…all of these things are part of the human experience. For some reason we put limitations on ourselves and others and we take ourselves out of the human experience. We say, “wow, look at that. That guy is walking on the moon.” But at the same time we can say, “wow, how horrific is that? That guy ended up being a serial killer.” What we don’t realize is all of us are part of it. That whole spectrum is the human experience. It’s only grace and whatever the words you allow to be spoken to you and you speak which put you somewhere on that spectrum. All of it is accessible to us as humans. We can walk on the moon or we may end up in jail because we are a criminal.

I didn’t realize this because I tended to live my life two dimensionally, because my dream doesn’t really fit into anything I see there. We can make our own path. We don’t have to fit a cookie-cutter idea. Sometimes we think, “Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, so I should probably go to school where he went to school and do what he did.”

We end up taking ourselves out of our passion area because we try to put on someone else’s cloak.

This was the most important thing I learned from West Point, though I learned many things academically, and I didn’t realize it till many years later when I was on a battlefield with soldiers. It is so dangerous to put someone else’s cloak on; to try and make yourself into someone else who was successful. “Well, General Patton was successful. He was a tyrant, so I must need to be like General Patton.” But, also, Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg was a poet and an English instructor at a small college in Maine, yet he was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading his troops at the Battle of Gettysburg. He led by caring for his soldiers, while Patton led by “he’s crazy…I’m going to follow that guy.” What I didn’t realize until years later was I developed my own leadership style. If I don’t settle in my passion area, I’m not going to be a good leader. I’m going to try and put someone else’s mantle on. Sometimes it takes us years to learn that.

I had a teacher my senior year of high school. She was encouraging us to pursue the life we wanted. “Whatever you choose do,” she said, “Do it with such passion that people cannot take their eyes off of you.”

When I first was selected, I had a chance to meet some of the pioneers who had come through these halls. The first time I met Neil Armstrong one on one I didn’t know what to say, so I just sort of generically asked him, “On the way to the moon did you have just a few seconds to reflect back on the enormity of the situation?” He said, “Yeah, I thought about what an ordinary kid I was. I had ordinary thoughts. I did well in school but I never dreamed I could be there, getting ready to walk on the moon. I couldn’t get my mind around it. So, because we can’t get our mind around it we go off and stay busy.”

I thought, “he’s like me. He’s on this spectrum too.”

He’s participating in the human experience. He’s writing his story and he’s reciting his verse.

I can do the same thing. It’s not going to be the same experience. It won’t be the same verse, but I can do something that will change the world too. Or at least change the world around me or change a life. It was then I began to realize we’re all in this together. Maybe there are more important things than money or power. Maybe there is power in influence and impact. It’s been a process for me, coming to this point.

Melissa: Did you always know you were going to change the world?

Doug: I think I’m still emerging. I think I still have doubts. I want to do so much but I still place limitations on myself. We box ourselves in. We put limitations on ourselves, on our kids. As a society, we live very two dimensional lives.

I think back to my flight training and my flight instructor would continually ask me, “When the engine quits, where you going to land?” He would ask every five minutes. After awhile, I began to look around. It started to become part of my psyche. A few weeks into training, he cut the engine and asked the question. I had mentally prepared, so I could put it down safely. Afterward, I couldn’t recall exactly what I had done mechanically because he had drilled it into me.

Just a few years ago, we saw Captain Sullenberger land in the Hudson River. I listen back now on the transmission after he had lost both engines and the controllers are trying to find a place for him to land. He had been trained, “When the engine quits, where you going to land?” So, when the engine quit, he knew where he was going to land. On one side were tall buildings and millions of people, on the other a nice flat area. For people who haven’t been trained in flying, it blows the mind, but you can do it if you are prepared. It goes back to something I learned a long time ago in pilot training.

Chance favors the prepared mind.

When I saw him put it down, I was amazed like everyone else. He had great training and was passionate about his work, so now, we can’t take our eyes off of that guy. That whole situation is because someone was so passionate about their work. Did he want to stay alive? Yes. Of course. But in the moment he was called on to save the day, he was there. Present. In the moment, prepared. If you prepare, you can do that.

Chapter 11: This Is Not the Love Story You Were Expecting

He saw me first.

Both online and in person. Our friendship began because he sent me a message to say, “That sh — you wrote was good.” As first lines go, it did its job. It laid the foundation for one of those rare and beautiful things whispered about in the corners of the internet.

A friendship between writers.

He saw me first when we met a few months later as I found myself dragging my suitcase and carry-on across the miserable downtown pavement of a Minneapolis Fall. He snapped a picture of me from the warmth of his car as I tried to lean away from the wind, barely missing the moment just seconds earlier when I threw my hands in the air and yelled at the sky, “I HATE THE MIDWEST.” He sent it to me later that day captioned, “Where to from here, Melissa?”

My bones were chilled and my hair was matted to my head when I reached the basement restaurant where we were to meet. Sitting down to bourbon, the promise of pizza, and the staff tucking away my bags out of sight, I relaxed. A bit. And then he was there, long legs taking the concrete steps two at a time, until his shaved head peeked out at me from beneath the stairwell.

He was covered in rain.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are two famous writers who had a strong platonic friendship. I told Micah about their friendship awhile back. “Is that those writers who loved each other, but not like that?” he asks. I tell him this is in fact them and it is claimed Bishop said, “I loved him at first sight.” He wants to know if I loved him at first sight. I answer immediately, “I did. Without question. You were forever tall and cold and rainy and lost. I wanted you to be warm again.” He answers with a heart emoji and we both return to working on the pieces we’re writing.

The friendship that was solidified that cold October day has become what it is because we have a strict no BS policy. We edit each other’s work without frivolity. We are liberal with compliments but unashamedly say, “that’s some lazy, shoddy work. Say what you mean. Stop being afraid.” That’s how we are about life too. We challenge each other to tell the truth in our relationships and stand up for what we believe. He claims we are the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of the writing world. I’m inclined to agree though there’s a bit of TayTay and her twenty-five bests tossed in.

I think we have that rainy Minneapolis afternoon to thank for beginning it. We moved from the basement pizza parlor to a cozy coffee shop and over black coffee and chamomile, we were honest about the state of our lives. The truth came out because I asked him what projects he was working on. Everyone else on my trip had given me a list a mile long and he simply said, “I feel like…this is so dumb or pretentious…I feel like what I’m working on right now is learning how to be a human.” I told him it was okay. “That’s not dumb or pretentious,” I reassured him, “It’s just where you are.”

“So, I feel like I’m learning to be a human,” he told me, “And that is a project. I think that a lot of times…growing up as a Christian…Christians aren’t always great humans. And sometimes you trade away your humanity in order to be a religious creature. I want to be a human. So, that is my project.

“What does being a human look like?” I asked.

He thought that was a good question and I wondered if it was one he was asking at the moment.

“Not in so many words,” and philosophical Micah comes out, “What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to have an identity? What does it mean to interact with the Divine? What does it mean to have an identity that interacts with other people? That involves a lot of writing, sleeping, crying, therapy and talking to other people.”

“Obviously,” I felt like I was getting a handle on him, “when you set out to find out what it means to be a human, that’s your end goal.”

“No,” he was firm in this, “my end goal is to not die.”

I think that’s a really good end goal and asked if he believes anything else will come out of it.

“You can’t know. I think that’s part of what it is to explore our space in the universe. Most of my life has been about manipulating my circumstances and surroundings and making the world be what I wanted it to be so I could have the experience of living that I wanted to have. In many ways, the one I thought I was supposed to have because I thought that’s what God’s will was. What I’m just starting to discover is you can’t do that. You think you can but it’s an illusion and you’re wasting a lot of time and energy on creating an illusion that’s both yourself and your surroundings. They kind of conspire together to create this appearance of life that isn’t really life,” he barely takes a breath in this speech.”

“That’s what Jesus was hinting at when He said, ‘If you lose your life you’ll find it and if you try to save your life you’ll lose it.’ I know all the Bible verses in the whole Bible. I’ve known that one forever. I feel like in a lot of ways I’ve spent my whole life trying to save my life, so now I’m trying to learn to lose it. The thing about that is I can’t know what that it will look like. I think trying to know what that will look like or trying to make it look like something specific will defeat the purpose.”

His words were prescient.

He once wrote, “we are living a good story.” And we are, pain and beauty in equal amounts. As I think back over this past year and the battles we both have fought in learning how to be human, I remember how it seemed that for awhile the pain might win. The reality of his end goal to “not die” was brought into sharp relief. I lit candles, to keep the darkness away. I lit so many candles I can’t even remember how many. With each one flame, I would whisper a prayer and the words, “light in the dark, hope in the night, love redeems story.” I prayed so many prayers of hope. And survival.

At one point I even wrote him a letter to tell him the truth about this hard fight he’d been in. I didn’t send it, because I have learned with my friend, (as with most of us) truths are always best swallowed when learned on our own. He came to visit many months later and as we sat there on the giant sectional, I read the words aloud to him and we cried a few tears together.

“It is dead,” the letter read.

“So dead I know you’d feel the clammy coldness under your fingertips if you weren’t afraid to touch it. But you are. You’re afraid to even look at it. So, I sit here and watch it for you. You plan and hope and keep on dreaming of what may be and I want to believe with you. I want to hope with you. My soul is made up of 94% hope. But, brave one, that thing is dead. I have heard your story so many times, I can tell you almost the exact date it died even if you are not sure.

After all the couching crying and laughing and becoming human.

The pain this dead thing causes you is too much. I want you to grieve it. I want to take those clenched up, knotted fists, grasp them in mine, drag you over to that dead body, and say, “LOOK ON THIS. It is dead, bub. DEAD. Do you know what that word means?It means gone. NEVER going to live again. It means passed on to another life. It will never live with you in this life again.” I want you to face it and see it and know it. I don’t want to cause you more pain. I want you to know it so your pain will end. Move forward. Heal.”

We cry that day because this is what he is doing and has done. We cry because I am doing the same thing with my own wounds. We cry because becoming human is the hardest thing. It takes sandpaper to all the rough edges of your soul and smooths them out until you are willing to become the you that you were made to be. And then we laugh unexpectedly, because we have learned how to do this too. Laugh and cry and get angry and resolve it and find joy and peace and hope and be healthy through all of them. And then write about it, so that someone else can say, “me too, yes, I have experienced that also.” This is what we do.

This is my friend, my family. This is not the love story you were expecting, but it is a good, good story.

Chapter 12: The People Gatherer

Dallas enveloped me in her open, green arms.

That’s where Sarah Harmeyerwas waiting and she is the epitome of restfulness. Her presence is a porch swing on a lazy summer day when the breeze is blowing just enough to cool the back of your neck, while you are curled up in that half state between reality and dreaming. Sarah is my friend and she the founder of an organization called Neighbor’s Table. I had come to interview her but for the first twenty-four hours I was there, she made me rest. And take long walks. And drink green juice and eat dark chocolate. Next to my bed was a notecard which I’ve kept in my purse for the past year. It’s words reminded me how loved I am. That’s Sarah.

She let me ramble. We went to a house show where a high school kid with the sweetest voice captured our hearts and then we thought her car was stolen. It was a brilliant moment of togetherness as we sat on the curb of surbubia in bewilderment and a 19 year old skateboarded toward us, “I found it!! You were looking in the wrong direction.” And then we sat down and talked about her dream, bringing communities together across the table.

“What was it about me that made you want to interview me?” she asked.

“I’ve watched you love people well,” I told her.

“I’ve watched what you’re doing with Neighbor’s Table grow out of your desire to love people well and I think that’s such a beautiful story to tell to impact and inspire other dreamers. It’s impacted me in my own story because there’s so much brokenness which has happened in the past year and a half. I’ve experienced many moments of not being loved well but also not loving well; from a romantic standpoint but other relationships in my life. Many times this born out of fear or not understanding situations. So, watching you live life fully and loving people well, even from afar has inspired me.”

She looked at me nervously. “I like to be under the radar but I’m trying to share my story better this year, so….do I get to proofread this before you publish it? I don’t want you making me appear larger than life.”

At first I told her she could check it to make sure I didn’t publish any salacious tall tales about her, but then backtracked a bit. “Sarah,” I said, “how I see you, your beauty and amazingness, you can’t downplay that.” She laughed but I see the fear that I would make her appear to be more than who she is was real.

You can’t fake love like Sarah has.

It isn’t something you can trump up and write tall tales about. It is real, legitimate, in the trenches love and I don’t need to write a Paul Bunyan and his blue ox tale to tell you about it.

She moved from Dallas to Houston in 2010 for her work and began to realize she was finding her identity in her work. That wasn’t enough. She began to reshape that identity. It was a busy and difficult time. “I think some of the greatest things come out of when things aren’t working in our lives,” she said, “we get to figure out how we can make that change.”

She loved connecting with people and when friend called her a “people gatherer,” something resonated. Sarah liked the sound of this but she wasn’t sure what it meant, so she spent the rest of 2011 considering what gathering people together might look like. She threw a dinner party for twenty people for a friend’s birthday party and people talked about it for months after it happened. It brought life to her and others who had been there.

As she began to think back to the best moments in her life, she found herself recognizing most of them were based around creating food and events for others. “What if I could gather people around the table?” an idea flickered to life. It began with commissioning her dad to build her a farmhouse style table for twenty to be placed in her backyard. They placed it in the backyard under the oak tree and hung a chandelier over the center and she chose a word for 2012.

It was community.

Sarah only knew two of her neighbors at that time.

She decided to become intentional about gathering people and invite her neighbors. Sarah has also spent a long time in the corporate world and believes in goals that are measurable. So, she set one.

“I decided I was going to serve 500 people in 2012.”

She began inviting people and mailed three hundred invitations to people in the neighborhood for her first dinner. “I put a definition of neighborhood on the invitation said ‘if you’ve never left your house and met anyone, would you consider coming tonight?” she told me. She asked them to bring a dish to share and ninety-one people came. “Father Will is this priest who lives two doors down from me and he sat in this corner smoking a cigar. It looked like confessional over there. People kept lining up. The kids were dancing. I still remember the people I met for the first time that I now know so much about their lives. It was my first touchpoint, just inviting people.”

She told people about it on social media and her goal and people got on board. There were Fourth of July parties, a gathering for a funeral, live music, and small dinner parties. “I think that year I cooked seven turkeys around Thanksgiving,” she laughed, “We had Fakesgiving and Friendsgiving. Every excuse to gather people. But on Thanksgiving day the five hundredth guest walked down the driveway. The sweetest young mom with three little kids, I was nervous because I was so excited. I don’t think anyone understand how life changing that year was for me. It’s like slow motion in my head. My dad was clapping. She had a covered dish in her hand as they walked down the driveway and everyone was cheering. It was really a random mix of people that day who didn’t have a place to go that day. I had made a crown to go on her head that said 500 on it and a big necklace to go around her neck. I gave her a hug and she wore it the entire day,” the smile on her face overwhelms her words and I can hear my sniffles on the recording as I listen to her story.

Neighbor’s Table (table design by Kris Drayovitch.)

“It was such a big deal, seeing my goal accomplished but feeling so happy inside because I was doing the thing God created me to do. Now, I realize that when we play that God has for us it is unmatched joy. I feel that every time I gather people at that people. There have been so many people who have come to that table who didn’t have a place or were really important and it was exciting to love each of them. I think something has really transformed among us who have come to the table but I think it started with me. I think it began with the work God did in me the year before with my identity. Everyone else was telling me who I needed to be but when I finally learned to rest in that and who God says I am, I entertain differently now because I know this is my deal and I can love more freely. This table has become a place where I can invite anyone. People know that anyone can show up and it will be cool. I tell people before the evening begins what I expect. It’s almost like setting the culture and how it’s a place of respect and a place of serving each other. It’s important to me that I lead that.”

Neighbor’s Table has evolved beyond Sarah’s backyard. She’s now building them for the backyards of others both here in the States and beyond. It’s not a tall tale. It’s a love mission and it’s contagious.

Chapter 13: Letting Go of Your Art

Ryan O’Neal is one of the most unassuming humans you will ever meet. You would never know upon shaking his hand that his music has been featured in films, he’s scored documentaries and TV shows, and is beloved by fans around the world. When I met him at a little indie coffeeshop in the suburbs of Chicago, I almost missed him hiding behind a baseball cap. He is the man behind Sleeping At Last, music which has brought such peace into my soul as well as that of so many others in many dark moments. Ryan has a gentle heart and there is sweet authenticity to his words which places you at home immediately in his presence. This is an excerpt from our conversation last October.

Melissa: Tell me about your latest project.

Ryan: I’m working on Atlas Year Two. The concept of Atlas was to tell the story of the Universe through different themed EP’s and releases. Atlas Year One began with Darkness. I kind of like the idea of starting before we understand where the start is. The second EP is called Light which is what I believe to be our understanding and acknowledgement of God and the beginning of the Universe and the planets. The third and fourth EP are Space 1 and Space 2, which are songs for the planets in our solar system. Then it goes on to Oceans and Land and so now the second year of the project, it’s all about life. I kind of like the idea of a video camera being as far away as humanly possible and then slowly working it’s way closer and closer to all the nuance of what it means to be a person. This next year will be Atlas Year Two and will be twenty-four songs long and I’ll release it in singles. It’s an on-going project that I’ll be doing and I have the whole thematic thing mapped out for several years.

Melissa: This is fascinating. This is kind of an unusual way of doing it, right?

Ryan: It is. The traditional music model is to record a record. Go on tour for two or three years. Rinse and repeat. What I found which works for me is I love writing and creating. I love performing as well but writing and creating is where my passion and love for music comes into play most. Three or four years ago I created a project called Yearbook and it was basically me writing and creating. It’s thirty-six songs long and the idea behind it was just to challenge myself to write three songs every month for a year. I want to push myself but also put out things that I was proud of. This kind of set the tone for Atlas and everything that followed. It’s unusual but I love it.

Melissa: How does touring work for you then?

Ryan: I still do it but it’s definitely fewer and farther between. In between doing Yearbook and Atlas, I did a year of touring but now I’ll do spot dates. It works better for me to tour less and then I really appreciate it more and end up writing and recording more.

Melissa: What does it look like for you to pursue your family, your wife and your daughter, while you’re pursuing your dream? And how do you make sure you have balance there?

Ryan: I think that’s the key word there. Balance. I’ve become obsessed with that only because I don’t think I have it figured out. I think I have a tendency to overwork — -

Melissa: As ALL DREAMERS DO!

Ryan: as all dreamers do! But you have to temper that. Especially when you have family…when you have a baby. That has been a conversation my wife and I have at least four times a week. Because doing your dream job is a gift but at the same time there are no hours. I can’t leave work. I don’t come home after five. It’s kind of like everything runs together because you love that and you love your family.

Your heart is putting a fingerprint on everything.

It’s a huge gift but balance and efficiency are two words I’m really obsessed with right now. Efficiency because I feel like if I could do my work more efficiently if I could compartmentalize it and organize it in a way where after a certain time I could be more physically and emotionally present with my family. As opposed to “today the lyrics didn’t really come together so I’m going to keep working on them in my head while I’m on this date but I’m going to pretend like I’m not.” So, getting stuff done when I need to get stuff done and keeping those boundaries in place.

My wife and I have been together for fifteen years. We were together for ten years before we got married. We met right around the time I began pursuing music. The first decade of our relationship was me pursuing my dream with no guarantee behind it, which every dreamer has the same problem. When it became something that could actually support us, that’s when the balance became more important. This surprised me. I thought it was almost selfish to pursue your dream with no guarantee behind it, but it’s also necessary to pursue your dream with no guarantee behind it. When things started actually working and I started actually making money doing what I loved, that’s when I had to learn how to fully put myself into my music and art and make it as personal as possible but not at the cost of my relationship. We talked a little bit earlier about your heart expanding. I feel like it does that for your dream as well.

There’s no capacity for love. It’s endless. It should be.

Melissa: How do you as a writer feel about putting your whole heart and your life and vulnerability into what you write, but not sharing someone else’s story? What does that look like for you?

Ryan: For some reason when I was very young and I started writing about my own personal experiences, that’s when I felt like music was real to me. I know as you said some artists can tell other people’s stories really well and in a personal way but I felt like my music became an audio journal for myself. I actually think it’s a huge gift to be able to have that outlet to sort out my thoughts.

Melissa: My question is actually how difficult is it to only tell your story in your music as opposed to those of your relationships?

Ryan: Ohhhhhhh. Music is such a sneaky thing where you can include people’s stories and details —

Melissa: Ha. They’ll say, “Oh, hey that’s my story.” And you’ll respond, “No. No. I’m just making words up…”

Ryan: Hahah. Yes. Poetry. Totally not, but yes. I’ve never had to really think through that because the writing is so much more visual.

Melissa: Oh, man. I need to start writing music. Then I could write whatever I wanted and no one would even know what I was talking about. (laughter)

Ryan: I do feel like there’s that magic trick in music where you can write about whatever you want in music as long as you keep it fairly abstract and don’t put names in it. In my particular type of songwriting, it wouldn’t fit to be specific.

Melissa: It’s weird to ask this of someone who has accomplished so much, but do you feel like you’re living your big dream? Or is there something more?

Ryan: I do. But I have to catch myself. My wife and I, over the past six months, have begun doing this thing before bed each night where we say three things we are thankful for. That practice of gratitude is huge. The first couple of weeks you start to say the obvious things, but then after that you dig in a little deeper and realize there is so much to be thankful for. A big part of mine is being able to do what I love. I don’t want to say I take it for granted, but I do sometimes forget the stresses in my life are real but my work eliminates so much anxiety that life can toss my way. There is nothing else in the world I can imagine doing.

Melissa: As you look towards the future, all dreams flow out of this one?

Ryan: Yes. In terms of music, I have dreams. I dream of scoring a Pixar movie. Those are destinations on my path but I am already on the path that I want to be on.

Melissa: Where do you find rest as you’re pursuing your dreams? As dreamers we’re always going a hundred miles per hour and then you are also pursuing your family and all these things…how do you find rest?

Ryan: I’m not good at it. I love TV and movies.

Melissa: But you’re probably thinking of the score and all of that.

Ryan: That or I’m completely numbing out and wanting to be transported. I don’t think that’s a refill, though I think it has a very important role in everyone’s life — to be transported by someone else’s story — the refill and actually resting are hard to come by. So, I love photography and have been pursuing that more. My mom and wife bought me a new camera right before the baby was born and I have been enjoying creatively expressing myself through something other than songs and lyrics. There’s no pressure on it. No one is waiting on my next picture. I’m still trying to figure it out. Rest is hard. I’m the kind of person who when I go on vacation, I’ll ask for a couple of hours to do email first.

My best lesson in it was probably with Bob Goff. He invited a few friends to his lodge in Canada and the rule is no cell service. I’ve never done that before. My phone feels like a limb of mine. It feels disorienting. But I came back and I saw things differently. I noticed color and —

Melissa: Did it change what you wrote after that for a bit?

Ryan: It did actually. I was in the middle of writing Atlas Year One and I felt finally like filled up again. This is the problem of spending time with Bob Goff. You want to be a better person. That was a huge lesson.

Melissa: How do you take moments like that and make space for them in the everyday? I think it’s a question we’re all struggling with. I’ve had this conversation with everyone I’ve talked to on this trip and we’re all the worst at it. I’m sure if someone in the psychological profession profiled us, we’d all be high performing personalities and overachievers. We all understand, because we’re also highly intelligent, that we need to find this.

Ryan: I think relationships are probably the answer. Usually you fit relationships in around your creativity and I don’t think that’s always the answer. I think you should fit creativity in around your relationships. As a writer, you do have to draw from something. Even in my Yearbook project, I noticed that at a certain point after twenty songs, I was starting to write about writing. It was a full circle loop. It actually helped me. I needed to go somewhere and do something.

I think relationships are the answer; valuing the time you have with people and letting go of your art for a little bit.

I’m implementing a new challenge that I’m borrowing from a friend. It’s called the Five Senses Rule. He uses it more for his family which I will also be using. Every time I go to a dinner, my five senses are with the people I’m with. There’s no phone, no anything, just my five senses. I’m going to taste the food. I’m going to see you. I’m going to smell the air. I’m going to listen.

Chapter 14: Preserving Humanity

Bill Ball is a natural storyteller and tour guide. He can’t help himself. There’s something about the way his brain is made up that wants to educate you on the place you are sitting in or standing near or walking through. This works in his favor as he has chosen runs a travel company which specializes in well planned trips in various parts of the world, as well as hosts and produces a series of travel documentaries. I’ve known him my entire life, as he was my dad’s roommate in college, so I’ve had the opportunity to hear many of his stories. Last October I sat down with him in a Starbucks in the suburbs of Chicago and asked him to tell me a little bit about his adventures as a dreamer and what it had taken to get to where he was. This is an excerpt from that conversation.

Melissa: Tell me how you started planning tours and running them.

Bill: A couple of years out of college a buddy and I decided that we had never traveled out of the United States and that we were going to travel. We booked a tour; it was one of those economy ones. I remember it was $990. It was all of Italy, Paris, and London —

Melissa: In like a week? (laughs)

Bill: Ten days. You really moved. We were in Paris and it was one of these trips where they give you a four hour tour and then you have two days free. It gave me a chance to start planning. I wanted to do all the planning. My buddy wasn’t into it, but I planned every second and it turned out really well. That’s probably where I got my feel for putting together trips. Even though it was a group trip put on by someone else; it was so skeletal. I think by the time it was over my buddy was ready to punch me because I moved him so quickly from museum to museum. I never really dreamed I’d get back there again. I thought that was my one chance. I was going to see it all. Subsequently, I’ve probably been back to all those places thirty or thirty-five times, always finding new things to do. It was ironic. Had I known then what I know now, I would have relaxed and seen just a few things. But maybe that did set me up for my desire now to see as much as I can and do as much as I can.

Melissa: So how did you get here? You feel like this is living your dream, right?

Bill: Yeah. You know, it’s funny. In one way, after starting to live my dream I realized where the roots of it came from. I remember as a little kid watching a show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and there was a guy on it called Marlon Perkins who had been a zoo director in Chicago and St Louis. I would watch every Sunday as he would go to some exotic location to talk about animals and conservation and work on projects. I said, “I want his job when he retires.” He obviously retired long before I had a chance to do that and then the show disappeared. But I think that’s where I got the first idea to do what I’m doing.

He went to all these exotic locations; South America, Africa, and places here in the United States to see wildlife. I think that kind of morphed into the traveling company because a lot of what we do is wildlife based and that is probably somewhat dear to my heart. From there the travel morphed into the television show and that involves doing a lot of filming in various places. It ended up going that way. There wasn’t a neat plan that I laid out to go to get there. But, it ended up going to the place where I, as a little kid, said I’d love to do which is having a show on wildlife and working with conservation to expose that kind of thing to the general public. I like to help people understand what they can do on a daily basis.

Melissa: I think that’s a really good principle, not just in conservation, but in life in general.

Bill: You can’t just try to save the Earth one day a year on a special conservation day. It has to be an everyday occurrence. And little things, as cities begin to have recycling and as people talk about global warming. Even as people visit national parks here in the United States and overseas. Just by being there they are giving impetus to preserve the land and wildlife.

Wolves are being reintroduced to Yellowstone. Activists pushed for that. Later, other people joined the cause because they saw an economic value to it as well. It brought more people to Yellowstone at times of the year when it didn’t have many visitors, like in the winter. It helped local businesses. And, it gave the locals which are affected by the wolves, who take sheep or calves, a reason to support it.

Africa is probably a great example or India. In the United States, we can pay compensation to someone who loses a cow to a grizzly. In Africa. if you lose a cow, there isn’t someone to pay you compensation. So, there has to be a reason for the wildlife to exist and that becomes the economics. I’ve seen reports come out of Kenya that one western tourist going into a national park there creates fives jobs. So, now there is a reason to preserve things and tourism is one of those. Tourism can be carried too far and create problems for wildlife but overall it’s one of the best things for conservation. Simple ways that people can save wildlife is simply to go and see it, to enjoy it.

Melissa: You’re saying conservation not only preserves animals but also preserves humanity as well.

Bill: On a couple levels. One, on the most obvious level, you have areas of India and Africa where new income is coming because of the parks. But two, I think there is a deeper hope for humanity because there are areas you can get to and see things as they have been before. You can get in touch with nature and our most primeval instincts.

Man doesn’t do well living in an asphalt jungle.

You need to walk trails and see trees. You need to hear birds and part of that is a reinvigoration. It’s not just for the animals. It’s also to be more human.

Melissa: I think there’s something to be said for this feeling of the earth under your feet. I was speaking to a friend about it the other day, about when you’re grieving. Whether it is a death or some other type of grief, sometimes you close yourself off inside. You need to go outside and reconnect with the world you live in and feel it beneath you. Be present in it. That’s part of the living you’re talking about too.

Chapter 15: His Heart Is For Love

Nashville. 2013

I was sitting in an aisle seat, ready to make my escape that September day, when a man took the stage. An acquaintance had told me prior to my arrival that I should meet him, listing off a series of attributes, “Celebrity photographer, entrepreneur, and truly good human.”

He didn’t seem as confident as some of the other speakers had. His voice was a little shaky as he began and there was relief in it as the audience turned their eyes away from him and towards the screens where his presentation was beginning. His story unfolded, through mesmerizing images taken by his camera, painted by his hands, and told by his strengthening voice. It became clear; this was an ordinary man made extraordinary by his drive. His talent is once in a generation, but there was something else unique about him. He sees his abilities as a gift.

As he began to tell his story, I felt an unusual emotion rise within me. Hope. He spoke first of becoming a top celebrity photographer, then starting Help-Portrait, a non-profit which gives people who have never had the opportunity or resources to have their portraits made a chance to have their picture taken. He told the story of using his abilities to spread hope after the earthquake in Haiti, taking photographs that eventually were shared in the halls of the UN. And then an image I will never forget filled the screen, two men, one a survivor of genocide and the other a perpetrator of it.

On their arms were painted the words, “Love is the weapon that destroys all evil.” The words echoed in my heart. Truth. Good and solid words. The kind which write themselves on your soul and propel you forward into some sort of service. He had done a series of these as the two opposing sides were brought together for forgiveness.

As he came to the end of his presentation, he asked a question, “What will you gift to the world?” Tears were filling his voice and our faces as he asked it and as he left us with that question, I felt myself rising to my feet. All around me others were standing, clapping, and weeping.

What will you gift to the world?

The words ricocheted in my skull like a bullet. At that point in my life I wasn’t giving anything to the world. I was trying to survive the day to day. Surviving leaves little room for giving back. I wanted to heal enough to get to the place where I could find my gift to the world.

His words and work inspired change and insurrection in my heart, so I asked him to sit down with me for a few minutes on my trip across the country last year. He was kind enough to take time out of his crazy schedule. In the few minutes we had together, I learned his success is meaningful to him only in the context where it allows him to re-invest in the world.

His heart is for love.

His heart is for love and my recording device wasn’t having any of it. I was only able to capture a few minutes of our conversation but I can tell you it was centered on his family first and work second. He is passionate about creating work that matters, but he is just as passionate about his family. Some of that conversation from last October has faded in my mind, but I do remember him talking about having a large work opportunity and turning it down to spend time trick or treating with his children.

Because the work you create isn’t the only legacy you leave behind. The moments are too.

That’s what I want you to remember about Jeremy — he’s a human; not just a creator or someone you aspire to be.

He makes choices and has feeling and creates and destroys. Like you. He recently wrote a post on social media after speaking at Catalyst. In it he addressed people taking selfies with him but no longer speaking to him. To them he was an object to observe rather than a being to have conversation with. He challenged those who read it to engage.

I support that challenge. There are no cool kids. We’re all humans. Some of us have accomplished incredible things which deserve respect but not worship.That’s how Jeremy creates. He isn’t here to here to present you with the best picture of yourself. Sometimes it happens, but it’s only because that piece of you already exists. Whether through Help-Portrait or OKDOTHIS or See University or what he’s done as a celebrity photographer —

His work teaches us to be seen — not as a commodity or a brand — as a human.

The culmination of Jeremy’s projects and photography is a question. Will we allow ourselves to be known for the beauty of our human spirit? Will we allow ourselves to be loved? That’s his gift to the world.

Chapter 16: Therapy For All, What If?

Philanthropy.

This is the name of the store I found myself wandering down the aisles of in Franklin, TN , before I found my way to Teri’s door that day. My friend, Ronne, has talked about often since we’ve known each other. Home to The Giving Keys, our favorite candles, gypsy clothes which wrap you in their romantic layers, and products created to fund many different causes around the world.

I had forgotten it existed until I tripped over it on the way out of Starbucks. The thing which completely took me by surprise was the wall of prayers. It is covered in hooks and handwritten tags. Each tag has a someone’s fear or trauma or desire written on it in the form of a prayer. Some are simple, others are complex.

On this earth there are sacred places, but they are not always where you expect to find them. You do not walk out of Philanthropy without leaving your prayer and taking a prayer. If that is not a deep practical act of worship then I have never seen one. There amidst the candles, fabric, and copper chains, I saw God’s face in those hundreds of paper tag prayers. I left one and chose one and walked out; that sacred place moment was breathing in me when I arrived at Teri Murphy’s doorstep.

She welcomed me in with a hug and a blanket to wrap around my freezing shoulders. We sat across the kitchen table from each other sipping shots of Jack Honey and she told me her story. As she did, she took a selection of crayons and began drawing words on a page. I was so entranced with her story, I paid no attention to the sentence that was forming on the white sheet before her. She handed it to me. “Here. These words are for you. They feel right.”

“You. Are. So. Worth. Loving.”

Now you know who Teri Murphy is. This is what we dreamed up.

Melissa: Tell me what you’re working on.

Teri: I just wrapped up a book and I’m now reviewing it. Especially the chapter about connecting with self. I’m looking at what does it mean to be a self? What does it mean to be a spiritual an emotional being? That’s not a trait. That changes over time. How do we stay connected through brokenness, through trauma, through stories, through transitions that naturally happen in life and through unexpected things? I have a real heart for shame and trauma and what that looks like in adulthood. Mainly I work with women. That’s what I see in my practice but I hope to expand it to both male and female.

Melissa: So you’re revisiting Connect (her book) and you’re also getting your PhD.

Teri: Yes, Chris [her husband] and I joke that I have been connecting people and dots since the year that I was born. I feel like I go into these iterative cycles of going into the literature and learning and wanting to go deeper into the science of things. Like why do these things matter. But in writing about it, it usually brings some crap up in me too. Things I have to work through and process. In the back of my head I’m always wondering why does this matter? We see it in the research. We know that it’s true but why does it matter? How can it actually help people? Especially if the themes are coming up in my practice, in myself, in my friends, on social media, in the research, then usually there is something there.

I almost feel like a dryer on the inside. The ideas tumble and tumble and then something usually comes out of that. That’s kind of where I am with my PhD. I’m studying specifically Marriage and Family Therapy, so it’s more of a systemic approach. It’s looking at how we’re all connected. In studying one person, you really have to study the whole; everything they’re connected to. For me, that isn’t just relationship with other people, it’s my relationship with myself, my relationship with God, and my relationship with others.

I also have my practice where I do emotionally focused therapy (EFT).

Melissa: Would you ever be willing to do virtual therapy?

Teri: With couples it might be hard, I feel like not being in the room I might miss something. If I could keep people safe, I might consider it. It’s a huge topic right now in the psychology world.

Melissa: I know many people in my life who are in search of therapists. It’s hard for them to find someone they can trust and someone who is a good fit. And they travel a lot.

Teri: It makes me curious. If there is a way to connect, feel that connection with people, even while traveling…there are logistical issues with being in the office every week, especially if you have a job that moves you around. If there was a way of monitoring it; oxygen sensors, heart monitors, if you could really see faces and monitor that and really pick up on some of that stuff, and see your therapist too and connect in that way. It’s a great area of research…like a virtual reality place where you could meet.

Melissa: I wonder what would be lost in translation…

Teri: I don’t know. I’m not sure how much of it is a physical presence.

Melissa: Because I think there is something about being tangibly present. There’s something about sitting with someone and looking in their eyes. You capture something you can’t any other way.

Teri: I would love for it to be possible. Can you imagine the people you reach around the world in that way? I feel like therapy should be accessible and available for everybody.

Melissa: Can you imagine what kind of organization you could create if you could make a therapy that was useful and accessible to all? Where you could offer it?

I was just having this conversation with one of my other dreamers, Branden Harvey, and he told me about an organization he worked with in Uganda called Beauty for Ashes. They work with these women who have survived genocide. They have such deep wounds but they’re raising villages of children by themselves pretty much and the few men left carry such a weight of responsibility. What if you could create an organization where you could make that kind of therapy available and accessible to people like that across the world? What if that was a possibility?

Teri: It could be life changing.

Melissa: It could be world changing. It would change the way people interact with their family units, with society. Because it’s a whole system.

Teri: Now my engineering mind is online. How to make that a reality, how to keep people safe, how to be ethical…meet them where they are.

The conversation continued. This in an excerpt of what our dreaming minds came up with. We want to hear your thoughts.

Chapter 17: Fitly Framed: Building Dreams Together

Two weeks ago, my friend Tammy and I sat across from Jon Acuff at probably the only Mexican restaurant which doesn’t serve queso in Chicago.

My eyes were brimming with unshed tears and his were a bit shiny too. I had just spoken words which I had always meant to say and never gotten around to and he was having a hard time accepting gratitude. Per usual.

“Two and a half years ago I was in an abusive relationship. Your words and the community you and Jenny initiated, grew, and inspired helped me break free. I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be who I am, as whole as I am and pursuing this wholeness, if it weren’t for you guys.”

The impact he, Jenny, and the community created when he launched a tiny thing called the Start Experiment, now Dreamers and Builders, two and a half years ago, gave me the courage to break out of the cage I was in. I was wounded and broken and unsure how to proceed but they picked me up and propelled me forward.

Last October on my trip across the country, I finally had a chance to meet Jenny after seeing Jon multiple times at conferences and meet-ups. I was excited, though a little terrified after all the amazing things I had heard about her. Not terrified because I thought she must be some sort of perfect robot but rather terrified because I assumed she would be able to see into my soul and I wasn’t quite sure I was prepared for that. I arrived at the Acuff home after a multitude of other interviews with three day old hair and heart full of exhaustion.

I was not the best version of me.

The door opened and there stood Jenny and Jon. I was a mess of an overstuffed bag spilling out everywhere, a sweater with a growing hole in it, and boots that had somehow come untied on the walk up the driveway. They didn’t seem to mind or notice as they swept me up in hugs through the hallway where L.E. and McRae stood peering around the corner.

Within a few moments I was comfortably ensconced in an overstuffed chair with a throw to keep me warm while our friend Grant took up residence in another one nearby and Jenny and Jon curled up on the couch. Well, Jenny curled up. Jon straightened his back and leaned forward ready to answer all my questions carefully, thoughtfully, and professionally. Jenny was more relaxed. But when I said, “anything you say that maybe you think after you’ve said it “Oh, hey, can you just destroy that whole recording,” I’d be more than happy to oblige.” They both agreed that Jon would be the only one who would feel that way. “There won’t be anything Jenny says that you’ll have to do that,” he said. She laughed and agreed, “Nope.”

If you have had any interaction with Jon Acuff’s work or presence online, you know that Jenny Acuff is a big part of that.

“Some people think Jenny is a construct I use to say things I want to say in her voice. Until they meet her,” Jon tells me. We all laugh at the utter ridiculousness of this notion. Jenny is brilliant. That is an oversimplified sentence with dull edges to describe a vibrant, deep worman with a steel trap for a mind. The way the two of them work together as a team is a beautiful sight to behold. It isn’t a perfectly oiled piece of machinery that causes you to doubt it’s authenticity. Their relationship is less like the sleek, shiny creepily silent machines you order off of Amazon which do their work without a sound and more like one of those in an old Disney movie. They’ve found a rhythm which creaks and sputters a bit but the noises are comforting and remind you everything is moving along exactly as it should — and whatever it is creating is guaranteed to warm your insides and probably make you laugh.

There was a lot of laughter in that conversation. Jenny loves to laugh and when I asked Jon what his big dream was, he hesitated for a moment and said, “To make people laugh.” I couldn’t help but think how fitly framed together that made them. I know that dream hasn’t been an easy one to come to terms with. We can feel like we should be doing more or that a dream which sounds airy or beautiful instead of heavy and weighty isn’t worth as much. Someone recently told me that Stevie Wonder said, “The world needs love. Write more love songs.” I couldn’t actually find that quote anywhere but the sentiment is true and I would say the same about laughter and Jon’s dream.

The world needs more laughter. Make them laugh, Jon. It heals their souls.

This was a year ago, so he had just sent his book off to his editor at Penguin and we began to discuss the process.

“It seems like this project more than any other in the past was one you worked on together,” I said. And then this call and response between the two of them began — because they are both active participants in the process.

Jon: I would say we did more on this one because I’m home —

Jenny: Yeah. He’s at the house.

Jon: Yeah. I have access to her. Jenny is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life and so I would run ideas by her in the kitchen because I was also in the kitchen. And so this is why I think this will be the best book I’ve ever written in part because I had the most access to Jenny to go “Is this true? Did I write this to make me look good? Is this helpful to a reader? Is this to make my ego feel good?”

Jenny: Mmmhmm. We pulled out half a dozen things today.

Jon: Yeah. Like “that’s not true. That’s you trying to play a certain role.” So, I would say it was more hands-on than the other ones.

Jenny: Mmhmm. Definitely. Well, you were writing them in other spaces —

Jon: Yep.

Jenny: — With other time constraints.

Melissa: So, what does it look like for you to play that role of answering those things? Has it been difficult? I mean I’m assuming that bluntgirl comes easy to you.

Jenny: It does but it hurts his feelings.

(everyone laughs)

Jon: Oh-HOH.

Melissa: How does that…how do you give that feedback but also give it gently enough that he can —

Jenny: handle it? (giggling)

Jon: (laughs)

Melissa: Yeah!

Jenny: I don’t know. It’s kind of an art.

Jon: (laughing loudly)

Jenny: It’s kind of an imperfectart.

Jon: But I think we get better at it every time we do it.

Jenny: Yeah. It’s his art. But he needs honest feedback on it. Someone who can…because his editor can’t say to him, “I know why you’re really saying this because I know the backstory on this..” or whatever —

Jon: Yeah!

Jenny: But it’s hard to criticize somebody’s art.

Jon: And it’s fresh.

Jenny: AND we’re in the same house. If I have to tell him something…like a couple of weeks ago (looks at Jon) I’m not sure which draft it was —

Jon: It was the second or third draft, I’m not sure…

Jenny: I told him..it JUST…because I’m the only one who keeps reading it over and over in continuous long form. Like he’s written it and edited it but I keep sitting down and reading it over the span of six hours. Eventually I said, “you’re gonna have to help a girl out. I’m confused and lost.” I think I hurt his feelings for awhile.”

Jon: Yeah.

Melissa: So how do you process that? How do you go from, “Okay, this is legitimate. She’s right to —

Jenny: Well, it takes him awhile to get to “She’s right.”

Melissa: That’s what I mean. How do you get there?

Jon: Well, I think my goal, I think where we have progressed in our marriage to some degree is the distance between you saying something and me believing it’s true is shorter.

Jenny: Yeah. Well our goals are aligned. He believes that our goals are aligned.

Jon: Yeah. So for me it’s a period…like the feedback was twenty minutes. And I was like, “yeah, you’re right.”

Jenny: (laughs) He always has to go off in another room and actually rethink it himself.

Jon: Yeah. I have to think “OH. You’re not saying rewrite this entire thing. I need three sentences taken out of these two points because they feel disconnected.”

There were more stories that filled the evening.

The successes and failures which have shaped their life and relationship and dreams. The depressing children’s book Jon wrote long before they had children about Winston the talking bluejay which was really a covert story about branding. Learning the seasons of life on the road balanced by summers spent with their family. Jenny dragging Jon away from his scheduled and planned life to adventure in a canoe and picnic and campfire away from civilization — leaving his comfort zone far behind. And weaving together a dream that fits both of them; a life of loving their family and friends well and all of the odd little cadre of internet denizens they seemed to have picked up along the way. Somehow they’re making it work.

I find myself a little bit in awe. Over the past two years I’ve pursued healing and wholeness with all of me. Part of that is relearning what healthy relationships look like; the give and the take, the support and the cheering each other on. I ask a million questions and observe and take notes because one day I plan on getting it right.

Watching Jon and Jenny, I realized you are enough on your own to turn the world upside down but with someone else’s help you can set it right again.

Chapter 18: Leaning In To Meant-To-Be

Two and a half years ago, she was building an empire.

Megan Webb had just started a company called Beard Sauce which was poised to be the next big thing in beard care. Yes, I said beard care. The Beard had exploded. It was July and men were sporting them as though it were mid-January in the backwoods of Canada. Megan had created a potion for her husband, Dan, which people were falling in love with. It was a mixture of essential oils that kept away dry skin and beardruff and left the beard silky and well coiffed. Her feel-good marketing slogan, “Good stuff for your face tuft,” played off her kitschy logo and her audience was sold.

Enough orders were coming in for her to quit her job and begin focusing solely on Beard Sauce and she began to write as well. She blogged about her life and started writing for the magazine for which I also wrote and helped manage. But as time went on, she found an increasing dissatisfaction growing. Beard Sauce had slowly begun to fizzle out. She and I had brainstormed a hundred different marketing campaigns. We’d pitched it to magazines. Opportunities had come and gone. The company she had birthed was beginning to die. And she found herself in an odd place.

She wasn’t sad. There was release in letting go of this dream. Difficulty. Bittersweet. The journey she has taken since then has been incredible to watch. Just recently she had her second child and the life she is building is far different than the one she had planned. A few months ago she wrote a piece called, The Bravery in Being Content. In it she said these words, “If you wanna change the world, you need to be brave. And one of the bravest things you can do in today’s culture is to be content.” Getting to that place wasn’t easy for her. It was a series of choices. It took leaning into some things and aways from others.

Some of that evolution took place in a tiny room in Atlanta last October.

We sat down to talk in a hip back room of the co-working space where our friend, Jake, worked. As we discussed what it meant to let go of this particular dream and be content with the state of things, I asked what her big dream was.

She grabbed a piece of butcher paper from the roll on the end of the table, a black Sharpie, a green Sharpie, and began to draw. “You probably think I’m a crazy person,” she said, laughing. “No,” I responded hesitantly, unsure what was happening, but positive she knew what she was doing. “There’s this Meant-To-Be,” and she drew a thick green line at the bottom of the paper, “It’s perfect. These are my strands and my threads,” she said as she drew black crooked lines out of the dark green base, “And I think this Meant-To-Be is just going to move up through my brokenness,” the green marker traced over the black strands, blotting them out with its brilliant life giving color. “As it moves up, it’s going to come out, in whatever form it chooses. And that’s my big dream, to let it come out; in whatever form it chooses.” She laid the marker down and stared at me.

If you’re watching the video recording I have of this moment, there’s silence on camera. An entire minute passes then you hear a giant sniff. I’m crying so hard I can’t even get words out. I know what she means. I know what she’s talking about. I can’t talk for three minutes as the sobs and snot drip down my face and puddle on the table. Then you hear me speak. I tell her what I’m learning about all this. “I think we try so hard to be all the things that we break things more. When if we would just allow what’s inside to come out and say, ‘this is who I am.’ When you embrace who you really are, then you can be who you need to be.” She agreed and we sat for a few moments discussing these things.

Then she said, “I’m going to pray.”

This is part of how Megan and I relate. Prayer is a part of our conversation. It’s not odd for us to interrupt an interaction with a prayer and so through my continuing sniffles I listened as she asked God to continue to allow our Meant-To-Be’s to flow up through our broken pieces and cover them and heal them — to flow out through us.

I think now of her life that has and is unfolding. The beautiful and crazy moments with her two sons and husband and this unexpected story that brings joy and hope. I think of my own wild and deep life that is nothing I planned and everything I adore. I think of the last thing she said before amen.

She closed with these words, “Use our love stories, our epic love stories, to shine light on darkness.”

I think we’re here. Leaning into Meant-To-Be.

Chapter 19: You're Not A Basic Love Story

The first letter I ever wrote to hb began with a tragic love story.

It showcased the words, “Maybe my role in his life is just to let him know that love doesn’t always knock on your door with a handful of conditions.” All about not asking someone to choose me and my nobility in not writing about him, it was a sad bit of unhealthy garbage wrapped in pretty language. If we’re being honest, it perpetuated the myth that settling is a great idea.

Four months later we sat across from one another at an oversized conference table which dwarfed our tiny frames as we told our stories and ugly cried while I tried to interview her. We’re writers who love story and people in a borderline obsessive manner, so the fact that we’re given to strong emotion shouldn’t surprise anyone.

I tucked my legs under me as she began to talk about her book. This was a year ago, so she had three days to give it one last look before handing the final product to her editor. She was having a hard time letting go. “I like to be in control of things and I’m not in control of this,” she said, “All I know is I told my truth and I put everything out there. I have to let it go and be alright with it.”

Hannah Brencher has become known for her beautifully deep pieces about life and love and at the time I wondered what could be so difficult about letting this piece of her story out into the world. “It’s a long hike to get to where I am today. Most people don’t have to go back and sit with that person and find a way to craft pretty words for a part of your life that you’re not proud of. I was not proud of the character I was, but it was all part of the transformation process. It was important to be able to buy a one way ticket for that character to say, ‘you can go and you don’t have to come back but I have to do the work so that I can leave you behind.”

I nodded my head and pointed out that people don’t always get to see that occur in the books and posts and articles we write. Sometimes we conveniently leave that out of the process and they end up believing they’re the only one who deals with those moments.

“YES!” hb is effusive and it makes you feel seen in conversation, “A writer’s job is to stay behind while everyone else moves forward and to find the words that let people nod their head and say ‘me too.’ And that is hard work.”

Again I agreed with her and added my two cents, “yes, and I think that is the greatest gift we can give our reader — a “me too” moment.”

She began to tell me about her move to Atlanta.

She left behind a relationship that wasn’t the right fit to find a community she could call home. “I came to Atlanta with the assumption that I was leaving that relationship and God was going to give me a new relationship here. Like I’m going to come to Atlanta and God is going to give me the man I’ll fall in love with. A few weeks ago, God was just like, “I have other things for you to deal with here. You have to be stripped and refined so that you can be ready to meet that person.” That’s hard because I wanted to come right in and meet that person.”

Her words tumble over themselves and as I reach to check my recording device she asks me if she’s word vomiting too much. “Absolutely not,” I tell her. “This is perfect.” I know where she’s at. I have had these feelings. She continues.

“It’s different when you’re married and have kids because you feel like there is never enough you can give to your business. I’m single and I can give as much as I want to my business. But I deal with that loneliness every day of not meeting that person who wants to be my cheerleader and wants to talk to me and wants to pick me up from the airport and that’s a feeling I have to push aside because it can wreck everything else. I’m sure anyone who is single knows that feeling like “is there even anyone out there for me? Would I even know how to treat them if they came along? What do I need to know so I’m ready when they show up?”

Because a relationship is it’s own beast. You have to pour into it and you have to be invested.

I’m terrified of that, because I think I’ve listened to the lie too long in my head that I will always put work over another person. I’m realizing the rewiring which has to happen in your mind. Coming to Atlanta, I forced myself to go out on dates and go out for coffee with friends. As an introvert it was hard, but I want that person to walk into my life. I don’t want them to walk into my life and then me think ‘here’s a laundry list of all the things I want to be and do and have in check’ and have to work on that while they’re in my life. I’m here and I’m alone and I’m alone for a reason so I’m just continuing to wade through it and check it off the list. I want to be healthy and balanced and check it off the list, so when they show up it won’t be hard.”

“I think I’m realizing I need to be with somebody who doesn’t want me to play small.”

At this point I may have had to pause in the conversation to do a little dance on top of the table. There are moments in time when words are spoken that your spirit agrees with so hard I think it sings in unison with the other person’s heart. This was one of those moments.

The Spirit kept moving and Hannah kept speaking, “Someone who doesn’t want my only purpose in life to be their wife and to give them children, which are beautiful things but I’ve had to work on this dream, which I love more than anything, for the last four years of my life. Meeting someone who will say, “that’s very much a part of you and I want to see that grow and you grow and I want you to challenge me and spur me on,” that doesn’t look like a lot of relationships that I had back home. Really I just want someone who will make me feel at home and make me feel understood for the craziness this life is. I’m not going to apologize for it anymore. I’m going to make it a new kind of normal.”

And with that she took a deep breath in.

I wanted to stand and applaud, but instead I said these ten words. I have said them to her a few times since. I will say them to her again. “You are the great love of someone’s life, Hannah Brencher.” You hear her make a few noises and a slight sniffle on the recording. I continued, “There’s no doubt about that. There’s no hoping about it. It’s just true when you have all that passion and desire inside of you. It looks different from what so many other people have because it is different from what so many other people have. Some people don’t desire a great love, so they won’t look for it. But some people do, so they will have it. It will be epic.”

Five months later I send her an email and remind her of that with these words, “God is not a tease. He created your heart as it is, exactly like it is on purpose. And He created one who will match it with his passion and fierceness and strong faith. One who will call you deeper into Him, who will teach you how to love Him better, who will make you more brave. You are someone’s great love. When he walks through the door unexpectedly, I know your heart will be ready. I have not even one doubt.”

That day, back in last October, she tells me that it is easy to play small. That sometimes she thinks she can do something really simple. She believes that she can settle too; like my first email to her about the broken man who couldn’t choose me. And then she tells me about a fierce friend who lays down some truth to her. “Hannah,” the friend tells her, “you are not a basic b*tch. You are not a Hot Pocket who can just microwave up some relationship real quick. You are a homemade pizza and you have more cooking to do. Go back to Atlanta and get your booty back in that oven.”

“You don’t have some basic sort of love story.”

I have been learning the same thing. Maybe I’ve been learning it so long I’m re-learning it. “I always thought that time was my enemy, hb.” She makes noises of agreement as I continue, “I always thought if it doesn’t happen now, it never will. It’s going to be this big dramatic tragedy and we’ll never be together. You feel that way but what matters is this moment right now. Instead of pushing things and manipulating the crap out of situations, just allow the moment to unfold. In pursuing your love story, be present.”

She is leaning over the table towards me, pondering this thought. This time her words are slower, “just remembering it’s not all on me. If I think it’s all on me, I’m sorely mistaken. It’s going to be someone who will fight for me. That’s something that hasn’t been common in any of the love stories I’ve been a part of. I’ve never been the one who’s been fought for. That’s when I’ll know it’s the right thing when he’s constant.”

I know this feeling. I’ve always been the fighter too.

“YES,” her words echo back off the wood walls again, “I fight for everyone and everything. And it’s been a wake-up call to realize not everyone is interested. I will claw to get to you. I get a lot of emails from readers because I write about caring too much. I think what happens is we all start out that way and then we realize not everyone feels that way. It is then we put our walls up. I’ve reached this point where I’m not going to change who I am and how I operate just because everyone tells me it doesn’t make sense. I’m willing to get my heart broken and mangled for other people because this thing is short and quick and done and I want to say I did it right.”

I’m shaking my head and the words are out of my mouth before I realize it, “Yes. And you want to say you made the impact you wanted to make. Even if it leaves you bloodied and bruised and shattered on the floor, at least you’re not some perfect plastic thing standing in the corner who never took one step.”

Hers are too, “You got to show up for people. It’s the only thing that matters in this life.”

hb’s words aren’t just words. The next evening our crew visiting Atlanta headed out for dinner and then on a little adventure. I had decided to get my tattoo after ten years of planning and several months of holding the design in my hands. As I lay on the table, the needle getting ready to go into my arm, all my friends stood outside in the lobby looking a little nervous. “Someone better get in here and hold my hand and let me tell them a story. This thing is getting ready to burn words into me. Forever.” Everyone else looked up at the ceiling, but hb hurriedly made her way to my side. She grabbed my hand and said, “I’m here, tell me your story.” And I did. While the ink went in, the pain came out. And not so much longer later my heart was lighter.

Becoming is a process. It’s leaving the past behind and letting the future stay in tomorrow. That first letter I wrote to her ended with these words, “I am learning to be in this moment. To be okay in it. To find delight in it. The good, the bad, the everything. That’s enough.” Started at the bottom, hb. I think we’re finally here.