BlogHer '14 Recap :: The View From Here

By Laura Jenkins

DSC_0352I would say I had no idea what to expect, but I did have expectations. I expected to be overwhelmed. To feel severely behind. To come away feeling like an isolated techno-idiot amidst a group of profoundly connected and accomplished women. I expected that I wouldn’t fit in. But when I signed up for BlogHer ’14, I decided to set all that aside and just show up. And that, I figured, would probably teach me something about myself.

It did.

For starters, the conference wasn’t that overwhelming. I guess you have to know how to tune things out and disappear when it all gets to be too much. I’m not a dutiful conference goer. I show up late. I leave early. I wander. When I was younger, I’d approach a conference setting with a dogged determination to get every last drop of benefit out of it. But now, I think the benefit is in knowing that quite often it’s not the framework or the agenda of the event that changes us. It’s the experience. It’s the little transcendent moments where we hear one thing or meet one person who flips a switch of self-awareness. And I’ve found that those encounters usually find me (rather than the other way around.)

My first BlogHer experience began with attending the Eppa Sangria Sundown Soiree (though the sun definitely was well above the horizon.) Think urban courtyard. Think a few scattered tables and a lovely snack spread prepared by Whole Foods. Think scores of women milling around, chatting it up, sipping sangria out of plastic stemless wine glasses. I witnessed several face-to-face introductions between women who’d been reading each other’s blogs but had never met in person. I chatted with one of the event’s sponsors, Jenny On The Spot, a beautiful thirtysomething mom of three who was named one of Babble’s top mom bloggers for 2012. She was very sweet, hip, and candid; it’s easy to see why she has more than 11,000 Twitter followers.

She’s the soccer mom’s Pioneer Woman, the best girlfriend you always wanted.

And she writes sponsored content for various companies.

Wait… what?

What does that even mean? She works products into her blog posts. Businesses pay her to blog about their products. Now, Jenny On The Spot would probably be the first to tell you that she only blogs about products she believes in. And if she did, I’d probably believe her.

And while that’s not the entirety of what Jenny does, our conversation opened my eyes to one whole segment of the blogosphere that I didn’t know existed: Big companies have started leveraging the vast audiences of mommy bloggers by paying them to say good things about their products.

Yes, I’d heard about monetizing blogs, but I thought that was just letting advertisers have space around your content, a marketing framework that paid the bills while you wrote about your passions. And that does exist, by the way. But advertisers have really upped their game. Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered food, was at this conference, building relationships with potential ambassadors—bloggers who could potentially help soften their image. McDonalds threw the closing bash, which was headlined by Run DMC’s front man, Rev. Run. There were scores of companies at the trade show, many of which openly recruited for “partners.” One rep told me I’d be compensated on a per-click basis: they’d pay me for every hit their website got that originated on mine.

Cuisinart was there, as were Eggland’s Best (yep, eggs!), SC Johnson Cleaning Products (scrubbing bubbles, anyone?), Glade, Angel Soft Toilet Paper and Ziploc.

But monetizing bloggers weren’t the only contingents at this conference. There were also a lot of women there who blog as a means of activism. I listened to Libby Kranz read at an open mic about her daughter’s death from a rare form of pediatric cancer earlier this year. Her blog, Unravel Pediatric Cancer, not only sounds a cry for more funding and research, but also serves as a source of education and comfort for those impacted by the illness.

And keynote speaker Shannon Des Roches Rosa, a leading autism activist, uses her blog to educate and encourage others. It was heartening to see how women have gathered in cyberspace to effect change in the world and support each other through challenging life experiences. DSC_0373 DSC_0367 The trade show was a trip. I won a $60 gift card to Game Stop on the Chuck E. Cheese Wheel of Fortune, but a few lucky folks landed on the iPad Mini and the X Box spaces. Skype was giving away a plethora of swag, everything from mobile battery chargers to windbreaker hoodies to super cool drink containers. As attendees walked through rows and rows of sponsors, they could do shots (yes, the alcoholic kind), eat Baskin Robbins ice cream, get a chair massage, or stand in line to see Khloe Kardashian (I passed on that one, though when I accidentally stepped on the carpet of her booth, her bouncer quickly told me to go to the back of the line.)

There was even a magic mirror, sponsored by The Mrs., an all-woman pop band. I took my turn standing in front of the mirror while it told me how beautiful and wonderful I am. It made me very uncomfortable, which was (I think) the point.

There were some fabulous keynote speakers. Danah Boyd talked about the horror of having an audience critique and make fun of her via a Twitter feed that was projected behind her while speaking at the Web 2.0 Conference. DSC_0345 The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, was extremely entertaining, even though she spoke candidly about her chronic anxiety, her struggle with depression and her OCD tendencies. Loved her.DSC_0389DSC_0400DSC_0405 I enjoyed seeing comedian Tig Notaro—though she did recycle a bit of her old material.DSC_0435DSC_0485DSC_0503 And I was pretty blown away by Arianna Huffington, whom I expected to be all kinds of ditzy and shallow, but instead came across as a woman of great substance. When interviewer Guy Kawasaki asked her what one of the biggest keys of her success is, she said, “Sleep.” The audience laughed, and she assured them she wasn’t kidding. How does a woman build a web news dynasty with her own two hands? First and foremost, says Huffington, self-care. What a refreshing (and much needed) perspective. And she more than held her own with Kawasaki.DSC_0537 DSC_0523DSC_0627 I met some wonderful women, many of which are close to my age. I got to spend some face-to-face time with Kim, who I started this blog with, but had only met in person once. Great conversations.

The pinnacle of the conference for me, however, was attending a workshop on publishing. Several editors talked about the book proposal and submission process. And while they talked in general terms about the ins and outs of book publishing, all I could hear was this:

Write. Write. Write. Invest in your own voice. Don’t compartmentalize your life. Believe in what you have to say. Pour it all out, wherever you are. Finish your book…quit spending yourself on the stories of others; tell your own. They’re worth telling. Stop procrastinating by chasing a vocation that is good, but not best. Quit trying to form new relationships. That, too, is a distraction. You have more than enough kids (six), grandkids (three), siblings (four), nieces and nephews (26), and a host of wonderful in-laws, cousins, friends, neighbors and colleagues. You already don’t have enough time to nurture those relationships, so why would you invest in building new ones that you’ll never be able to keep up with?

Going to BlogHer ’14 taught me a lot about the blogging world. As far as I can tell, some blog for money, some do it to rally around a common cause, and a great many do it simply to connect with like-minded folks. It’s a way for people to both hear and be heard. In the midst of our busy lives we can instantly engage, whenever it’s convenient, with people whose stories intersect with our own.

Going to BlogHer also confirmed what I’d been suspecting for weeks: that this experiment with Fifty Fifty Vision was coming to a close for me. When Kim and I started this blog, we agreed to do it for a year, or until it became clear that it wasn’t working for one of us. And I’ve reached that point; I simply don’t have time to work on my book, keep up with my own blog, and help spearhead this one.

I’ve loved being a part of Fifty Fifty Vision, and can say without hesitation that if connecting with others via the blogosphere was in the cards for me, I’d want to do it here. But I need to be true to what my life is telling me –which is what Kim and I set out to encourage women to do in the first place.

So I may drop in here as a contributor from time to time, but by and large I’m going to pour my efforts into my Storyscape blog. In the meantime, Kim is going full steam ahead with this wonderful endeavor, and I intend to follow her. I trust you will too.

Starting Over

By Laura Jenkins
 
marriage bliss

Sometimes I think about things I never verbalize. Random case in point: when I was in elementary school we used to visit my aunt in San Antonio. At the time it felt like a cross-country trip, though I lived (and still live) in Austin, which is only 70 miles from San Antonio. But to me, it seemed like we’d been driving forever. I’d lie on my back in the rear of our white Pontiac Bonneville station wagon, watching the uneven telephone lines sway in various rhythms between the poles. Tobacco smoke hung in the air from my parents’ cigarettes and cigars while a baseball game drifted in and out of the staticky AM radio. Every time we’d reach the Riverside exit in Austin, I’d think, “What if a giant appeared out of nowhere, picked up our car, and put us back in San Antonio? Then we’d have to start all over and make the long journey again if we ever wanted to get home.”

At that moment I couldn’t think of anything more tragic. I’d put a lot of hard work into those 70 miles, or so it seemed. As it turns out, my 10 year-old imagination was processing a universal condition, one that I’ve become intimately acquainted with:

Starting over.

Kim kicked off our “Love is Louder” theme on Monday, which happened to be her 35th wedding anniversary. Today is my fifth, and I am so very happy to mark the occasion with what you might call an unorthodox reflection.

If you count our “starter” marriages (I was married for 25 years the first time; Craig for 20) and add the five we’ve been married, that makes 50. Technically, that adds up to some kind of strange golden wedding anniversary. But we’re happy to call it five, because both of us have said they’ve been the best years of our lives.

Still, I must confess that when I hear the stories of those who’ve been married more than three decades, I’m a tiny bit envious. There’s something to be said for having that much history together; every couple I know who’s been married 30-plus years has had to work through difficulties. Infidelity. Illness. Infertility. Financial ruin. Chemical addiction. Unemployment. The loss of friends, parents, siblings, and—God forbid—children.  I know couples who’ve made it through all of those things, and I also know couples who didn’t get the miracle they were hoping for and ended up widowed or divorced.

When it was happening, neither Craig nor I wanted the divorces we went through. However, today we’re both profoundly grateful that life figuratively chewed us up and spit us out in the same general vicinity. We will both tell you, without equivocation, that we’ve found our better halves. That’s just one of the many paradoxes you learn to live with when the “D” word becomes part of your story.

Here’s what I’ve learned about starting over: My happiness in this marriage doesn’t require that I erase what was good about the first one (and I don’t care how bad it was, people, there was some good in all that mess). Likewise, I don’t have to stuff, deny or minimize my grief over the profound losses I’ve suffered. I can let them be what they are and still be fully present to the amazing man I now have the good fortune of being married to. Contrary to popular opinion, those things can occupy the same space.

It would take a very long time to explain the uncanny connection Craig and I have had from the time we met in 2007. And I really can’t speak for him. But I can offer plenty of evidence of why he’s so easy to love:

He makes me laugh like no one ever has.

He’s tenderhearted. Sometimes movies or segments on CBS Sunday Morning make him cry.

He is an exceptionally generous guy.

He has three amazing sons that we can love and enjoy together (a first for me!)

He really loves my girls.

He’s an amazing grandfather (his grandpa name is “Happy.”)

I adore his very large extended family.

He’s spontaneous. I remember when we were first dating, we drove by a movie marquis and I commented on a flick I’d like to see someday. He pulled into the driveway and convinced me to walk in with him and watch the film. 

He tells it like it is (sometimes this isn’t a plus for me.)

He’s very affectionate.

He can find common ground with almost anyone.

He’s willing to laugh at himself.

He can be appallingly irreverent (but then so can I.)

He has taught me how to have fun again. (Two weeks after my mother died of cancer in 2010, he led me to an arena where he had purchased sixth row seats to an intimate Elton John show. I will never forget how much that evening meant to me; it was so refreshing after all of the sorrow and suffering we’d all been through.)

But more than all of that, probably the biggest thing that made me fall in love with Craig is his shepherd’s heart. I’m married to a man who, when my ex-husband and the father of my children died last year, kindly and happily accommodated my three girls, one spouse, and two grandkids for nearly two weeks, so that the kids could stay together. Hordes of people came to our house to offer the girls condolences (many of whom were friends of the family when I was in my first marriage). Our living room was a wailing wall. Bins of old family pictures—most of which reflected my first marriage—spilled across the floor so that the children could put together a slideshow for the memorial. Every day after visiting their father’s apartment the girls would bring some of his personal items home and so there were reminders of my first marriage all over our house. And where was Craig? He was answering the door, bathing the grandkids, cooking dinner and encouraging the girls to eat. He was doing the dishes and hiring a woman to come and do chair massage for us at the end of a horrific week. He was supporting me, emotionally, as I was trying to help my children deal with the biggest tragedy of their lives. While millions of people plan how they’re going to change the world for God, Craig simply does God’s work.  There are many, many people who would testify that his presence has, at some point, made a huge difference in their lives.

I know there’s an ebb and flow to marriage, where each partner supports the other in hard times. But I’d have to say that looking back on the last seven years (we dated for two before marrying) so far I’ve been the one who’s needed most of the support. And he has been more kind, compassionate and present than anyone I’ve ever known. At the same time, we’ve savored more joy, laughter, love and deep abiding friendship in seven years than many people experience in a lifetime.

Starting over is hard. But it can be more wonderful than you’d ever let yourself imagine. Happy fifth Anniversary, Happy. I love you so much. Here’s hoping we live long enough to make it to 35!

Seasons

By Laura Jenkins

Fotor0615211551Above: a grove of trees I regularly pass while I’m riding my bike.

 

I’m not sure where I got this idea, but when I was in my twenties and thirties, I thought the good life was simply a matter of figuring it out. Cracking the code. And God knows, I tried. Things would fall into place for a time and then I’d crash and burn over various misfortunes: a job that got increasingly difficult; arguments with my then-husband; money issues; severe self-doubt. I’d gnash my teeth about not having done things “right” and then redouble my efforts. I just wanted to hit a stride, where all the bad things would stop happening and I’d be able to get on with living happily ever after.

It wasn’t until my late forties that I began to really notice the cyclical nature of life, the coming and going of seasons. My default is to fight such change, to try and keep things the way they are. But all that usually does is make things more difficult, and delay what’s ultimately next.

A big challenge for me (and I suspect a lot of people) is accepting death—not just of people, though that is a monumental challenge at times—but of friendships and eras and vocations and relationships. We come into this world alone, and then attach ourselves to people, ideas and possessions, which isn’t all bad. But when I cling tenaciously to something that has served its purpose in my life, I close myself off to what’s trying to be born. I’ve heard countless stories of disenchanted middle-aged people who think back to their glory days, the “first love” that made them feel vibrant, strong and sensuously alive. Though married, they somehow get in contact with that girlfriend from high school, a middle-aged woman who is facing many of the same feelings of boredom and disappointment with how life has turned out. The reasoning goes something like this: If I felt robust and alive with this person at age eighteen, and I don’t feel it now, all I need to do is connect with him or her and I’ll feel it again. Of course it’s not true, because it wasn’t just how they made you feel; it was when they made you feel it. You aren’t the same person you were then. Back then you were in a particular season of life known as “coming of age,” that moment when, like Simba, you ascended to become the Lion King (or at least you thought you did.) Today you know you’re not the Lion King, and it isn’t so much that you missed your coronation, it’s that the coronation came and went. And then you moved on to the next season, where you hopefully realized that becoming the Lion King isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Some of us are more able to go with the flow than others. For me, fear is undoubtedly the single greatest challenge in accepting the reality of change. Over the last 18 months I’ve found myself in yet another career transition, which unfortunately doesn’t get any easier each time it happens.  I spent eight years as a wedding and portrait photographer, which was only supposed to last long enough to put me through school. It was never my dream. But it took longer to let go of than I thought it would, and I eventually had to move on without having something solid lined up to take its place. After the decision was made, I relentlessly read myself the riot act, which means I kept reminding myself how foolish it was to step out of one job without having a super solid start on another. Translation: I should’ve hung on to that season.

However, when it comes to vocation, I’ve never been able to tie myself to what is standard and routine in our society. I’m 52 years old and I’ve never had a salaried job. I don’t have a 401k, I don’t have employee health care, I don’t get sick days and I don’t get paid vacation. I’ve always been an independent contractor or a business owner. Period. The lure of benefits is definitely seductive. But I think know I would be miserable in an eight to five, because I wasn’t designed for that kind of regimented, dictated existence. Some people thrive in that environment and even enjoy it. And sometimes I truly wish I were one of them. Could I do it? Yes. But I honestly believe that a part of me might suffocate and die if I had to jump in to the corporate world. Once I started coming to terms with that, the devil’s advocate began whispering in my ear, “Well, isn’t that nice? You’re going to be irresponsible because you don’t want to subject yourself to what most normal people do.”

I often wonder if there’s another type of irresponsibility, that of sacrificing one’s calling or essence on the altar of conventional security. Frittering away our greatest contribution for the promise of a regular paycheck and a pension. On any given day I could be talked in to either side of the argument. I know what I want the answer to be, that is, that I’m doing the right thing by following my heart rather than my fears. But of course I’m afraid I’ll get older and regret that I didn’t make more hay in this season of my life.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve let myself consider the possibility that my saying “no” to conventional employment is saying “yes” to who I am.

Much like the seasons, I think we’re always changing, evolving, and “becoming.” If the “me” of today sat down to have coffee with the “me” of 25 years ago, we’d have some fundamental things in common: We have the same parents, siblings and children. We both know what it’s like to feel afraid and lonely. Each of us has lived in the same geographical areas and historical eras all our lives. But we’d also have some major philosophical, ideological and spiritual differences. We might even get into an argument, or at the very least I’d probably roll my eyes at her a few times. Hills that I would’ve lived and died on when I was 25 aren’t even on my map anymore. I don’t know the whereabouts of most of the people I called my closest friends when I was in my twenties and thirties. And the few times I’ve run in to people I used to identify with has left me wondering how in the world we ever had anything in common.

I am the same, but I’m profoundly different.

Instead of imagining my life as a timeline, what if I saw it instead as a grove of trees, each one at varying stages of growth and maturity? There would be saplings, for example, my experience as a grandmother, or my marriage to my second husband (both of which have happened in the last six years.) There would be moderately sized trees that had generous foliage on their branches, which might represent my recovery or my writing career—things I’ve been doing for quite awhile that have both defined and changed me. And then there would be a few lumbering oaks with thick roots. Being a mother would fit in that category, as would being a sister and a spiritual seeker. Some trees in my grove are flat out dead (bearing children; my first marriage, to name a couple) and some have yet to be planted. And I think that’s the scary part of saying goodbye to a season. There’s the question of what to plant next and where to plant it. The key is to somehow believe that there is welcoming soil that will work its magic, if we will but open our hands and release the few measly seeds we’ve been holding on to.

 

 

Maya Angelou

By Laura Jenkins

Maya Angelou_Color (Credit Dwight Carter)downsized

Photo Credit: Dwight Carter

About a year ago I had the incredible honor of interviewing Maya Angelou. We chatted over the phone for about 45 minutes about her new book, Mom & Me & Mom—a heartwarming narrative of Angelou’s remarkable, yet complicated relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. Our brief conversation was not only one of the biggest highlights of my career; it also deeply impacted me on a personal level.

I learned early in the professional writing game that when I’m interviewing someone, it’s not even remotely about me. Though it’s tempting to lapse into friendly banter during an interview (especially when a particularly gracious subject seems to be inviting me to bring my thoughts and experiences into the dialog) I must remember that I am not talking to them as a fan. I’m talking to them on behalf of my readers, to see if I can tap in to the wellspring of their inner lives enough to reveal a fresh glimpse of their greatness. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson says she strives for “accelerated intimacy” with her subjects, meaning that she tries to create a safe space where they feel like they can tell her anything, even though they may have met only five minutes prior.

Angelou and I reached that sweet spot very early in the interview, so I had to be especially mindful to keep myself out of the mix.

She was more than happy to talk about her beliefs, her experiences and her family (particularly her mother, brother and grandmother.) But on several occasions, she turned the conversation back to me.

“So tell me about your children,” she’d say.

I gave her the bare minimum (three daughters, all grown) and launched into another question.

She kindly answered it and then out of nowhere said, “Does your granddaughter live close by?”

I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. Of course I wanted to lean in, but for the most part my professional ethos kept me from doing so. Since I had a limited amount of time with her, I was ready to move briskly through the interview so I’d have enough material for the feature. But she was set on strolling through our conversation, surprising me on several occasions with her strong presence and insight.

The first unexpected turn happened when I asked her the one and only question that didn’t have to do with the book. I slipped it in because I’ve been working on a personal essay entitled “Amazon Women,” which will eventually be a chapter in my own book. Angelou was six feet tall and I wanted to hear how she experienced being a very tall woman.

“I am six feet tall,” I said, “all three of my daughters are very tall, and my four year-old granddaughter is projected to be upwards of 6’2.” I found it somewhat difficult to carve out a feminine identity during my coming of age years, because adolescent boys typically aren’t interested in girls that tower over them. What has it been like for you to be a six foot-tall woman? Was that ever difficult for you?

Oh yes,” said Angelou. “It was terrible. Guys wouldn’t dance with me, and I was a good dancer. But [my brother] Bailey danced with me, and Bailey was the best dancer there was. And he was 5’ 4½”. He told me all the time, “You’re a female. You’re supposed to wait and I’ll open the door for you. I’ll hold a chair for you. This is what I do for you. You don’t have to act like you’re some big giant; you just happen to be tall, that’s all.”

“What a gift to have a brother who could affirm your femininity,” I said.

“Yes, indeed. Constantly, and he was not threatened by me being tall. Not at all.”

At that point I attempted to wrap up the topic and move on. “I’m mostly happy with my height now,” I concluded, “though sometimes I wish I could enter a room without commanding so much attention. You can’t be inconspicuous when you’re six feet tall!”

As I looked down at my interview questions to decide where to head next, Angelou started to say something, paused to search for words, and finally said,

“Let me think about this.”

It was as though she were putting me on hold to listen in on God’s scanner. After a few moments she spoke up in a very authoritative voice.

“You deserve to be free of that. The fact that you have three daughters and granddaughters tells me you’re trying to get over that ridiculousness. You’re so grand, and people look at you with such envy, and wishing. No, no, no. You’re fine. You’re just fine, thank you.”

I was genuinely stunned. Never before had I had an interviewee turn the tables on me like that.

But perhaps the most surprising twist in our conversation happened when I asked her about a part of the book where she reveals that she had to somewhat change who she was in order to peacefully exist in her marriage. At the time she worked at a life insurance company that gave her a salary, but no pleasure. She wanted to go to church, but her husband didn’t approve so she did it on the sly, so as not to cause conflict.

“What would you say to women who find themselves suppressing who they really are in order to hold a relationship together? I asked.

When she started to answer me I immediately thought she’d either misheard the question, or had wandered off topic. I wasn’t sure where she was going with it. But when she brought it full circle, you can hear my stunned surprise (complete with stammering) at the point she was making. Since it’s a crude recording, I’ve pasted the transcript below it.

Angelou: Well, I really need to tell you that in Vivian Baxter’s liberation, she also liberated me from fearing death. She used to say, “If I die today or tomorrow, the world doesn’t owe me shit.'”

Laura [laughing]: Your mother did?

Angelou: “Mm-hmm. ‘If I die today or tomorrow, the world doesn’t owe me shit.’ I thought that was so rude and daring… and daring life and daring death. And when I’d ask her ‘What does that mean?’ she’d say, ‘Because nobody promised me today. And I’ve got today. Nobody promised me last week, and I had last week.’

So over time I began to see whatever I have is a blessing. It wasn’t promised to me; I haven’t earned it. I have this. So then I had spent some time in my late teens, being afraid that I would die, that the time would come and I would die. And when Vivian continued to say that to me, I began to say, ‘Wait a minute. Everybody will die, so I don’t have to be afraid of that. It’s the one promise that will not be reneged upon.’ So then, I don’t have to be afraid. And that is a kind of liberation, Ms. Jenkins, it’s a kind of liberation of such value. Of such value. So that, if a husband or a fairly beloved or whoever, doesn’t like the way you’re living life, it’s your life. [Chuckles.] It is yours, and you will have to give it up sooner or later anyway.

Laura: “So, don’t do it… don’t… don’t die too soon.”

Angelou:  “Yes, Exactly not.”

It had never before occurred to me that changing who you are to make someone else happy is a form of living suicide.  And now that Angelou is gone, her admonition to live my own life while I still can is ringing loudly in my ears. “Don’t give up your life, YOUR life, before you have to.” 

If you’re interested in reading the feature I wrote from this interview, click here.