Author Archive for Kristen Webb Wright

10 Things I Learned in 10 Years of Selling WordPress Products

T

his week, I wrap up nearly a decade at iThemes. I didn’t want to let this transition go by without reflecting on what I learned, celebrating some achievements, and expressing gratitude to the awesome team that became a second family to me. You don’t spend 10 years together without having some stories to tell. 

If I’m honest, I never saw myself in marketing or even business. I studied art in college, assuming I would go on to a career in the humanities or education. Once I left college, I’ll admit I floated from one non-profit job to another, not sure where I belonged. But that’s when the special place of iThemes welcomed me, introducing me to the wonderful world of WordPress. 

It’s been said that WordPress is a movement, a philosophy. The open-source initiative means freedom: ideas are shared; collaboration is key; transparency is necessary. Like all idealistic notions, of course, nothing is perfect. But I was drawn to these high ideals of empowerment and free expression; I could get behind these values as the foundation of our business. 

What I quickly learned, though, is that WordPress also represents an entire thriving business ecosystem. Talented teams around the globe work every day to bring innovative tools that build on the foundation of WordPress. The WordPress marketplace faces both some unique and universal business challenges. Ask any developer turned overnight CEO; any former art student turned content marketer. 

I gave myself the challenge of distilling down my experience of selling and marketing WordPress products as a way to look back and also a way to look forward. I believe these lessons will continue to be true long into the future. So, here goes.

1. Marketing … with Heart 💛 

Let’s face it: marketing can get a bad wrap. If there was one thing I realized during my first few months at iThemes, it was the challenge of building a marketing approach that was also a bridge between our customers and the rest of the team. 

What I learned was the importance of what I call marketing with heart. It’s an approach to marketing that is built on a few key values:

  • Be helpful.
  • Be generous.
  • Be sincere, authentic, and honest. 
  • Be clear and concise. 
  • Respect your customers’ time (as well as their inbox and timeline)
  • Earn respect with your team. 
  • Commit to excellence. No shortcuts.
  • Do the right thing. 
  • Make people’s lives awesome

With any marketing campaign, I learned to ask myself:

  • How are we being helpful and generous?
  • What’s confusing about this?
  • What exactly am I asking the customer to do?
  • How can I make this action easier for the customer? 
  • Is there anything I’m being lazy about?
  • How can we surprise and delight anyone who reads or sees this?

Of course, all marketing comes with one primary goal: make more money. But I’m here to say you can make money and hold these priorities at the same time.

2. Sell The Thing You Made For Yourself

Quite simply: The WordPress products that took off were solutions we built for ourselves to solve a specific problem. 

For example: 

  • BackupBuddy was built after we experienced a server crash in 2010. We needed a way to completely back up and restore our own WordPress website, so the idea for BackupBuddy was born. 
  • iThemes Security came on the heels of experiencing a server breach, when the need for a better WordPress security solution became obvious. 
  • iThemes Training courses like SEO Bootcamp and Google Analytics Bootcamp were launched because we needed this type of training internally. 

I can think of other examples outside of iThemes, like Restrict Content Pro. Over the course of that acquisition announcement, I learned that RCP was built out of Pippin Williamson’s need for a membership solution. 

3. Your Customers Likely See Your Product Differently Than You Do

One of the more interesting revelations was realizing customers often see the benefits of a product differently than we did. Often, there was a problem the product solved or another major benefit that we weren’t seeing, so we were missing an opportunity to highlight that benefit within our marketing efforts.

The best and only way to figure this out was to actually talk to customers. Interview them. Conduct meaningful surveys. Find out what you’re not seeing. Don’t guess.

Ultimately, knowing how your customers truly see your product better shapes and informs your marketing messaging, the copy in your sales pages, the emails you send, the ads you run. And it can help you focus your development efforts in a better direction. 

4. Simplicity and Clarity Always Win

Donald Miller says The brand that communicates the simplest is going to win.”

I bought into this idea, fully: Simplicity and clarity are the things that will set you apart from your competitors. And I have example after example to prove why he’s right.

In reality, though, it isn’t easy to be simple or clear. Maybe it’s even more difficult in the tech world, where building a product doesn’t automatically mean you know how to effectively market it.

I have learned that the pursuit of clarity and simplicity requires a few things:
  • Willingness to cut out anything unnecessary
  • No shortcuts
  • Intentionality
  • A lot of WORK

5. The WordPress Marketplace Evolves Quickly. Your Business Should, Too

We all know that WordPress is constantly changing. (Hello, Gutenberg!) This change (well, like all change) is always met in three ways: 

  • Resistance
  • Ambivalence (my personal favorite)
  • Acceptance 

The way WordPress core changes will impact WordPress businesses. There’s always the chance that the features you’ve built into plugins or themes may eventually become part of WordPress core. Or the functionality you’ve built as your product may become obsolete altogether. That’s a scary prospect, of course, bringing a level of uncertainty that isn’t for everyone.

We felt the challenge of WordPress change deeply at iThemes. After all, how do we work day-in, day-out improving our products and still be active in the wider WordPress community? How do you do both?

There’s no easy answer, but I can say for sure that staying involved in the wider WordPress community means keeping a better pulse on how WordPress is changing. 

This means:

  • Going to WordCamps
  • Actually getting to know our customers
  • Being active in WordPress.org support forums
  • Contributing to WordPress core
  • Building an interactive community of our own at iThemes Training
  • Building friendships with other WordPress business owners

While the challenge of change will always exist in a rapidly-changing industry, we learned we had to do what we could to stay relevant and continue to innovate. That often meant change within our organization and the products we offer. It meant pivoting to products that reflect the movement of both the WordPress community and the WordPress business ecosystem. 

6. Customers are Real People, Not Just Revenue Numbers

I remember reading something once about the limits of our comprehension when it comes to large numbers representing actual people. This awareness is also a monumental task when it applies to scaling a business and marketing: Each account represents an actual person with hopes, dreams, disappointments, and frustrations.

It can be difficult to hold the enormity of this continually, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s easy to get lost in charts and projections and forecast goals, losing sight of the faces behind all those numbers. 

At the iThemes office, we had an entire wall devoted to the pictures of customers. Every time I walked down the hall, I seemed to land on a new face. For a while, in the office break room, we had a TV that displayed the gravatar of the latest purchase (you never knew WHAT you were going to see). But these small efforts seemed to help remind us of the people behind the profits. 

7. Embrace Competition and Collaboration 

Not long after I started at iThemes, Cory Miller, our former CEO, hosted a “Friends of iThemes” event that included the owners of several other competing businesses. At the time, since I was new to the culture of WordPress, I found it a bit odd that competitors would meet up to talk through their shared challenges and successes … and just hang out. This was my first introduction to a rebuttal of the idea that just because you have competing products you can’t collaborate. 

One thing I’ve learned about the WordPress community is its generosity. I think this speaks to the fact that WordPress business owners, in general, truly want to help their customers. And of course, have a profitable business. We might as well work together.

8. Consistency is Key

All too often, we abandon endeavors if they’re not an instant success or if we don’t see instant results. But I’ve learned that some things take time. (In fact, I have a poster of this quote in my office to constantly remind me.)

Because business can happen at such a breakneck speed, and goals (especially revenue goals) can come with a ton of pressure and urgency, it’s easy to give up on marketing endeavors that don’t instantly succeed. 

That’s why it’s important to make informed decisions on what marketing initiatives are the most important, and commit to them. Really commit to them, and show your commitment with consistency

If I learned anything at iThemes, it’s that content, SEO and email are the secret sauce to great online marketing, especially for WordPress products. But these things take time. They take time to plan, time to produce, time to see results. And more than anything, they require consistency. 

  • Send an email every week, no matter what. 
  • Publish a blog post every weekday, no matter what. 
  • Keep optimizing your old and new content for SEO. 

Don’t give up. It takes time to see the payoff. 

As Gretchen Ruben says, “What you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while.”

9. See Failure & Mistakes as Opportunities to Learn & Grow

A “growth mindset” culture requires one key philosophy: Failure and mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow. 

Simply:

  • You can’t innovate without failing
  • You can’t learn without making mistakes

I’ll admit it outright: I’m a perfectionist. To the MAX. But it’s been one of the greatest challenges of my personal (and professional) life–putting down the heavy shield of perfectionism. 

It’s no secret that we made a few mistakes and had a few failures at iThemes. Some of these mistakes impacted our customers directly, other times we felt the failure internally. 

But each and every one of those things laid the foundation for us to ask the incredibly important question of “why.” Having those incredibly difficult conversations helped us take the mistakes and failure to learn, grow and do better. 

When it comes to mistakes and failure, own up. Communicate the hard truth, even if it means sending an email to your customers. Don’t sweep these things under the rug. Even if it’s painful at first, your team (and your customers) will ultimately respect you all the more for it. There is no pathway to trust without transparency and honesty. 

10. Personal Development Matters as Much as Business Development 

Ultimately, if I learned anything at iThemes, it was myself. When I started at iThemes back in 2011, I had no idea how much I didn’t actually know myself … or what I wanted. 

Most jobs aren’t exactly the avenue for introspective endeavors, but I was handed several resources that helped me learn about my strengths. 

For one, each team member got a StrengthsFinder assessment. 

I learned my StrengthsFinder strengths (or themes) …. 

Another strengths assessment is the VIA Character Strengths. Here are mine for that one:

Ultimately, knowing your strengths helps you sharpen them. When you know where you excel, you can work in your sweet spots. Knowing your strengths also helps you know when you’re working outside of them. With the knowledge of strengths, you can build a better team, where individual team members have complementary strengths. It also helps you see different perspectives, motivations, and priorities. 

All of these lessons helped me realize that personal development matters as much as business development. Work on yourself. Know yourself.

As Thoreau said, “Know your own bone. Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, gnaw it still.” Being a self-aware person helps you correctly frame all your motives, reactions, and decisions. This can’t be compartmentalized from professional life.

Wrapping Up a Decade + The Journey Ahead

More than the work and what we accomplished, I’m grateful for the friendships. We climbed trees, we rafted rivers (and fell out), we explored new cities, and we built some kick-ass WordPress products together. I’m thankful to be working with you every day, awed by your talent, your hard work, and your gif game. 

[Press play and continue reading]

To the iThemes team:

  • I’m grateful to Matt Danner, our General Manager, for seeing the potential in me, for teaching me how to shoot a bow and arrow, and for being a kindred spirit about things like finding personal solitude in the woods and drinking good chai. Also, congrats on the Emmy!
  • To Patti, Painkiller, made of pure gold: YOU are the glue. Your thoughtfulness is unmatched. Your kindness and generosity never left even the smallest detail untouched. I miss our walkabouts and conversations dearly. If I ever find myself barefoot on a beach in Hawaii again, you’ll be my first thought. Never stop exploring!
  • To Chris Jean, Wearer of Many Hats: Pizza Parties Forever! You are the most intelligent human I know. Keep thinking, keep baking, keep the cats happy.
  • Saylor Rain: You make all of us (especially Celine!) so proud. I can’t wait to see all the places you’ll go! (With a mink coat). Where do I buy a pass to the flower farm?!
  • Elise: In the nine years I’ve known you, I’ve always seen one consistent thread: you are made for great things. Thanks for all the cakes and commas
  • Sarah: I stand in awe of your spreadsheet skills. Thank you for always being so consistent and patient. And for doing it all while raising 3 boys!
  • Michael: Learner, Grower, Activator, Woo. You inspire me so much to never stop learning and asking questions. Plus, you like cool tunz!
  • Lewser: I would never have known so much about goats without you. I’ve enjoyed getting to work alongside your greatness. Live free and DIY.
  • AJ: Your caffeine intake is a thing of wonder, along with your webcam resolution. Wishing you all the best!
  • Timothy: What a cool thing it has been to get to see your talent expand. Winner forever of Zoom backgrounds. A Paul Hollywood handshake to you, sir.
  • Rebecca: Oh, Canada! Knit on. And take down the patriarchy.
  • Yobani: So glad we got to work together! Thanks for always being so helpful and for the taco recommendations.
  • Thomas: Thanks for your tireless work in supporting customers. I truly wish you all the good things … and a new Rubix cube.
  • Ronald: Afscheid! Still hoping to one day visit the Netherlands. Thanks for being such a great coworker and for all you’ve done for iThemes. Oh, and for the Stroopwafels.
  • Nathan: You taught me so much about WordPress! Thank you for being such a generous teacher and advocate for iThemes.
  • Curtains: I’m bummed we didn’t get to work together longer, but I’m excited to see where your experience and inquisitive nature takes you!
  • Schmatt: Thank you for always having such a bright, helpful, positive attitude. Plus, you brought us the world’s best no-bake cookies. (Thanks, Kels!)
  • Josh: I was always so impressed by your work ethic and positive attitude. Thanks for bringing your skills to iThemes.
  • Jenny: I’ll never forget your story about 9/11. That one will stay with me forever! Thank you for sharing.
  • Jared: While we didn’t get to work together that much, it was cool to see your hard work on RCP. Now, if I could just get a button to cancel my account at a certain online meal planning service …
  • Daphne: I was so incredibly impressed at how you finished a web development program while being a mom while working a full-time job. You are an inspiration.
  • To all the awesome folks at Liquid Web, including Joe Oesterling, Carrie Wheeler, Terry Trout, Mayra Pena & Misty Combs: Thank you for preserving iThemes and giving us a new home to thrive. It was a pleasure getting to know all of you!
  • Lindsey Miller: I must include you among this list of gratitudes. We’ve had so many amazing conversations I’ll cherish forever. I’m so thankful for your friendship and encouragement all these years.
  • Finally, thanks to Cory Miller, our former CEO, for giving me a place to learn, grow, and kick trash cans. I owe so much to you. 

Lastly, I’d like to give a shout-out to all the people out there who may be more comfortable behind the scenes of a business, content to do the work. Don’t try to fit into a mold. Build your personal brand, or refuse to do it out of principle. Seek out other interests besides business. Read for pleasure, take walks, have a hobby. If you despise social media or find it a waste of time, don’t do it. 

At the end of the day, at the end of a decade, only three things really matter:

  • Progress 
  • Passion
  • People

Pulling For Our Wishes

I’ll never forget the sunset Tuesday night. Driving home, the space just above the horizon line was glowing pink and orange. A line of heavy clouds obscured the upper portion of the sky, leaving just enough space for the light to get through. The sun slipped down, revealing itself for a few moments, a huge orb of light.

My view of the sky wasn’t perfect or full. Buildings and gas stations and warehouses blocked the sight, and I sped up, weaving in and out of traffic, hoping the highway onramp would unfold a better vista. But, by the time the stoplights cycled, the colors were already fading. I looked over, aware of my hands on the steering wheel, trying my best to match words to what I was seeing, the way blue and purple washed into pink and yellow, a watercolor western sky.

It was one of those sunsets that seemed distinct from all the countless others I’ve witnessed. I felt lucky to have seen it — a true, unexpected gift — it only lasted for a few, fleeting moments. Had I not left work ten minutes early, I would have missed it completely.

For the rest of my commute home, I turned the radio off, getting lost in anticipation. It was election night in America.

I realize now I’d just assumed I’d be standing in front of a TV when the results were finally called, moved once more by the ideals of hope, democracy, unity, equality, and a brighter future. The voters would speak, rejecting fear and hate. I was ready to have my faith in the country restored.

***

The last few days have been hard. I didn’t anticipate how deeply this election would emotionally affect me: sadness, anger, grief; the realization of profound misunderstandings, deep divisions.

I hoped to find some solace by going to the park. The sun did come out today and yesterday, as it usually does, to remind us that nature does not bend to our moods. It was actually a beautiful day, warm sunlight, a blue sky. The colors of fall get brighter, more saturated — reds, oranges, yellows.

There’s a particular smell right now, when you’re walking through the woods — crisp, spicy, earthy. There’s a small window of time before the leaves on the ground get damp and begin to decompose. That’s another smell; it’s both sweet and savory, like the smell of red wine.

I made my way down the trail, beginning in my favorite part of the park. The branches of the younger oaks thread over the path; sunlight falls in a patchwork over the ground. A breeze picked up and the leaves rustled, and I stopped, watching: the sight of those yellow leaves falling all around, fluttering to their final resting place.

I walked mostly, running only for a few minutes. My leg muscles ached and my body was too tired. My mental energies have been exerted elsewhere, and there wasn’t enough left.

I passed several people — people with their dogs trotting ahead of them, a man in a business suit and sunglasses, another jogger. That we waved to each other, smiled, as strangers, lifted my spirits. Maybe we’d taken to the park for similar reasons, even if we had cast our votes differently.

Near the first mile marker on the trail, there’s a sculpture of two children pulling on a giant wishbone. The top of the wishbone arches over the path; each child pulls on their own end, on opposite sides. Their bodies are frozen in the struggle, their arms stretched up, squatting into their effort.

Near the first mile marker on the trail, there’s a sculpture of two children pulling on a giant wishbone. The top of the wishbone arches over the path; each child pulls on their own end, on opposite sides. Their bodies are frozen in the struggle, their arms stretched up, squatting into their effort.

The race looks equal, and you can’t tell which one will win, where the bone will crack above them. If I have one criticism of the work of art, it’s that the children look too similar; they’re identical in fact. Neither looks to have an advantage.

I’m not sure the world is actually like that, that there’s a fundamental fairness promised to everyone. Not everyone is an advocate for equality, especially when the disadvantages of one actually benefit another.

Can the wishbone ever break evenly, divided down the center? Can there be more than one winner? Can we all get what we want? The artist didn’t reveal what happens, deciding instead to immortalize the moment just before the outcome of the competition.

And so we toil on, pulling for our wishes. Maybe the wishbone hasn’t cracked quite yet.

Tell the Trail, My New Memoir, Is Here

About three weeks ago, I sat on a rock by a river in Colorado, typing up a status update to publish on Facebook. It was a sentimental date for me—two years ago to the day, my new book, Tell the Trail begins.

After the post went live, I got up, brushed off, and took a look upstream. The river ran in a swift current around me, even though the water level was much lower than during the summer rafting season when the snow melts off the peaks.

Up the hill, after a steep climb up the banks of the river, I found a monument. It was a huge boulder that looked more like an abstract sculpture, the center hollowed out to form a hole.

On the top of the rock, a plaque was cemented into the surface of the stone.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
–Søren Kierkegaard”

When I read the words on the plaque, I was overcome with emotion. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” A quote from the philospher Kierkegaard.

Under the quote, names and dates were listed to honor rafters that had died on the dangerous stretch of river.

I stepped back, realizing it: I’d traveled over six hundred miles to finally find my answer.

What’s the Book About?

“What’s the book about?” That’s one of those questions that has followed me around the past few years, along with “Why publish your journals?” 

I’ve tried out a few different answers to the What’s it about? question.

“It’s a memoir.”
“It’s just my journals.”
“It’s about learning to be mindful and live in the present.”
“It’s about life.”

The truth is—I can’t reduce Tell the Trail down to just one sentence. I’m still in the midst of my story, living each day, feeling my way through my own narrative.

I’ve wanted to capture every single detail of my life, everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Looking back on the last two years, a lot has happened. I published my first book. I turned thirty. My best friend, Emily, got pregnant and had a baby. I traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast, put my feet in both oceans. I learned a lot, I struggled a lot, I celebrated a lot. I’ve wanted to capture every single detail of my life, everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.

I know now that one of the callings of being a memoirist is committing to the work of gaining clarity about your life’s story. Life must be lived forwards; we must live diligently and earnestly, paying attention. In having a record, I can look back, understanding.

Why Publish Your Journals?

We aren’t usually interested in anyone’s journals or diaries until they’re famous. I’ve combed through the journals of Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce Carol Oates—some of my favorite writers, interested to see how their private lives flowed into their art. Maybe there will always be something a little thrilling about gaining any type of insight into someone’s innermost thoughts and struggles. We see ourselves mirrored back in the words of others; for once, we can relate.

Journaling has been my mirror and compass, reminding me that writing is my passion. By keeping a journal, I’m learning the sound of my own voice. 

There’s a reason journal-keeping is used as a tool for introspection and contemplation. Journals are much more than a personal history book. My journal has been a safe place to sort out thoughts and feelings and a way for me to identify meaning.

My journal reflects myself back to myself, reminding me what’s important. Reading back through my journals, I have a clear picture of significant events. I’ve learned worries and feelings come and go. By keeping a journal, I’m learning the sound of my own voice.

My journal has been a compass, pointing me in the direction of pursuing my passion: writing. Writing gives me a way to convey an inner life I don’t always know how to express otherwise.

So here it is. Tell the Trail, my new memoir.

So here it is. Tell the Trail, my new memoir. Here are my journals, imperfect just as I am, bound up between two covers. Here’s my own personal history book, shared in dedication to living, to the act of remembering.


Having kept a journal these past two years, I’ve found each day is special and significant, brimming with meaning. My journals have been a safe place to unwind the threads of my experiences and weave them into a larger story, a bigger picture of my life. Now, combing through the archives of a full year, to have detailed, daily records of what I saw and felt and thought, to trace out the horizon line of my own internal landscapes, I’m overcome by the width and depth and breadth of life.

I’ve learned I must be a diligent scribe—and student—of my life. And maybe—I need to let other people read what I’ve written, what I’ve found.

Maybe the record of one life will knit itself into the fabric of someone else’s.

Available now on Amazon.com

Get a preview here.

Buy Tell the Trail

Improvised Trails

I ventured off the paved path today, into the thick brush of the park. Off to the right of the walkway, a slight parting of the trees revealed a narrow dirt trail. Where did it go?

A few footprints were pressed into the damp mud ahead of me, so I wasn’t the first to follow my curiosity. I wondered who else had been here before me; maybe the trail was already familiar to them, or maybe they had set off exploring the unknown, like me.

I made my way forward, ducking under limbs, pushing branches out of the way, navigating around vines with thorns. A few paces in, I stopped, surveying the scene—a thick, wild wood had engulfed me: the scent of evergreens, fresh and new; trees with the first hints of green leaves; tall brown grass.

Looking around, I was reminded of being a kid, exploring the woods in front of our house. Maybe it was because there was something mysterious and enchanted about the interior of the park, like a secret garden, long overgrown and forgotten.

Looking around, I was reminded of being a kid, exploring the woods in front of our house. Maybe it was because there something mysterious and enchanted about the interior of the park, like a secret garden, long overgrown and forgotten.

I continued on my way, stepping, climbing, exhilarated. I wasn’t sure where I was going, exactly, and maybe that was the thrill.

Up ahead, the trail forked and I considered my options. On one side, a tree had fallen over the path, most likely during the ice storm last fall. On the other, the trail seemed to fade into thick brush.

I chose the fallen tree, mainly because I wanted to climb over it. And just as I crested the trunk, a knobby branch caught my pants and ripped a hole in them.

I leaned down to inspect the damage—it was a jagged tear, about 3 inches wide, on my upper thigh. The fabric was tattered and irreparable.

I laughed to myself, thinking this is what I get. I get a hole in my favorite pants because I needed an “adventure.”

I heard voices up ahead and I could make out the outline of two women walking on the other side of a line of trees. I could see the black pavement of the walkway—I’d made it from one side of the park to the other, I just needed to navigate the last bit of brush.

When I finally emerged out of the woods, it was to an open clearing in the more habitable part of the park, right in front of one of the more popular playgrounds. I tried to act casual, like it was a very normal thing to have done—duck out from behind a few branches, off an improvised trail, looking only slightly disheveled, with torn clothes.

I rejoined the pavement, walking on. From behind my sunglasses, I glanced over at the people sitting where they were supposed to sit, at picnic tables or under the pavilions, or swinging their children on swings, enjoying a sunny afternoon in the park.

***

 

 

Monhegan, Out-To-Sea Island

Low tide. The ocean recedes, revealing a landscape that is usually hidden underwater—sea moss-covered rocks, their texture like velvet, brown and bright green and yellow. Later this evening, when the tide rolls back in, the water will overtake them, leaving just the ancient gray granite above the surf, stacked high, unmoved, unchanged, for centuries.

This morning, the lobster boats idle in the distance, swinging out into arcs, than stopping. Whether they’re collecting their traps or setting new ones, I can’t tell. Brightly colored buoys are scattered everywhere in this cove, like sprinkles.

This morning, the lobster boats idle in the distance, swinging out into arcs, than stopping. Whether they’re collecting their traps or setting new ones, I can’t tell. Brightly colored buoys are scattered everywhere in this cove, like sprinkles. Every color and combination you can imagine—green with white, yellow and red, blue, neon green. Some are so close to the shoreline now, in low tide, I wonder if I could walk out onto the rocks to inspect how far the ropes extend down deep into the surprisingly clear water.

“Maine has the highest number of elderly people per capita,” the retired judge from Houston told us yesterday. After they offered, we joined them at their picnic table in the shade. We were surprised to hear they were from Austin, and we talked more commonalities—sports, the first Longhorns game of the season this weekend, hating Interstate 35.

We sipped on our sampler flight of four beers outside the Monhegan Brewery, deciding which one was our favorite. I preferred the pale-colored Kölsch and Jacob’s was the black IPA. I’d also ordered a small glass of their house ginger beer, which was my favorite out of them all. The taste of it was spicy and cool and refreshing, perfect after the rocking hour-long boat ride and the long hike we’d taken along the island’s east coast.

We woke up early that morning to catch the 9 a.m. ferry. The ferry runs twice a day out of New Harbor, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, making it a perfect day trip—five hours to explore the island, which is just enough to walk from one end to the other. When we left, a heavy blanket of fog covered the harbor and I assured myself surely it would burn off when the sun got hot in the afternoon.

We got to the ferry early enough to choose a seat on the top deck with a view. A handful of other people were already there, like a couple that sat in the very back with their wire fox terrier. All of the wooden-bench seats eventually filled up—elderly couples with broad-rimmed hats and compression stockings, a group of four rowdy tourists about our parents’ age, and two couples that looked to be our age, or younger.

I snapped a few pictures over the guard rail, looking out into the harbor. The fog erased the horizon line, so the scene was otherworldly—bright white and yellow light, the water a mirror; a few lobster boats anchored into the water.

new-harbor-fog

The fog erased the horizon line, so the scene was otherworldly—bright white and yellow light, the water a mirror; a few lobster boats anchored into the water.

The hour-long trip to Monhegan was shrouded in fog; it never let up. Visibility was limited to a few feet beyond the boat’s sides, so you could make out the rippled surface of the water, and our wake. I kept my eyes closed to avoid getting sick, just letting myself feel the motion of the boat moving across the water, back and forth, sometimes forward and backward. When I did open my eyes, it really was a beautiful, mysterious scene: the bright light diffusing through a fine mist of tiny water particles, dispersed through the air.

The couple in the seat ahead of us soothed their crying baby and someone behind us wondered out loud “shouldn’t the gentle rocking help?”

***

We landed on Monhegan Island in a little over an hour’s time. I was sad to miss the view of the island as we arrived, since the fog obscured everything. Once we got off the boat, visibility increased, and you could make out the inns and shops and houses—and the immediate feeling of history: upright wooden-shingled colonial houses, brightly-colored front doors, stained brick chimneys.

monhegan-cottage

I brought one of my Maine guide books and circled the places on the Monhegan Island map it mentioned: follow the Burnt Head trail, then turn north on the Cliff Trail to Squeaker Cove, then head back west through the Cathedral Woods, back to the village. A short walk (and a few wrong turns) lead us to the first sign, so we set off.

What we found was awe-striking: a hike through a dense forest that eventually led up and over rocks to five separate panoramic views of the cliffs and the ocean. “It’s like something out of a movie,” Jacob said. “I just can’t believe we’re on an island.” We took a few minutes to sit down on the rocks overlooking one of the cliffs. A man in a brightly-colored orange shirt sat on the rocks in the distance, the only foreign color in the scene.

The sound of the surf roared down below, crashing on the rocks. I remembered something the guide book had mentioned: this is were you keep a healthy respect for the ocean.

The fog hadn’t completely cleared, so you didn’t get a complete view of the ocean’s horizon line, but it was enough to see the jagged outline of the cliffs and the pine trees clustered at the top. The sound of the surf roared down below, crashing on the rocks. I remembered something the guide book had mentioned: this is were you keep a healthy respect for the ocean.

We hiked on, doing our best to follow the illustrated map—climbing sometimes vertically over rocks, then down steep ledges to continue on the trail. We passed a few other hikers—groups of elderly people with hats and belted shorts and walking sticks. “If they can make it, we can,” Jacob joked. I laughed, out of breath.

monhegan-hike

The last part of the trail heads through the Cathedral Woods, a thick, shady forest that runs through the interior of the island. I wondered how a complicated landscape ended up on an island, which seems like an abbreviated version of the mainland—but Monhegan boasted all the complexities of a rich geography, and the forest seemed to mark it’s own legitimacy, in case you had any doubts. It was cool in the forest, and I could understand its namesake—the cathedral of tall trees overhead; a sacred place all in its own.

cathedral-woods-monhegan

After two hours of hiking, we were hungry. I’d packed the same picnic lunch as I have every day this week—sandwiches, crackers, hummus, cookies, the added treat of a brown-spotted banana. We hiked up the hill to the lighthouse and found a bench overlooking the island. From the spot, you could see Manana Island off in the distance, a cemetery with white headstones, the cluster of rooftops in the village center.

I stopped to snap a few pictures of the man painting a small canvas on his portable easel. He stood with his back to the path, working paint with a tiny detail brush. I imagined what it would be like up here, painting, an audience of passing tourists that stop and watch you work, appreciating your efforts to capture the scene.

***

We left Monhegan content, tired, a little sunburned, and full of beer. Jacob ate an ice cream cone on the walk down to the ferry and I took a few licks; it was melting quickly in the afternoon sunlight. The fog did eventually burn off, enough for us to get the view of the island as we left and headed back out to sea.

On the ride back, we spotted seals and porpoises and everyone cheered and clapped as sightings were announced. I didn’t close my eyes this time: I wanted to remember it all, take it all in, this day spent on the island out-to-sea.

monhegan-island-ferry

 

Our Own Trails

I set off on the trails, alone. I wanted to make each loop, take them all in, mark my progress on the map. It took a little under an hour, just enough to be full and satisfied with my portion.

I went early enough to escape the summer heat, to pause overlooking the creek in a fleeting cool breeze. How lovely it is to be under the shade of tree branches, with nothing but the sound of gravel underfoot, moving forward.

My secret landmarks still stand, quietly—the giant tree with the enormous, ancient trunk; the long bench with the mysterious L.M.B quote; the lonely gazebo out in the tall grass; the angled red rocks near the creek’s shoreline. Maybe one day I’ll match them up in my mind with their corresponding trail letter and color, make them serve as a true indicator of my location.

I took time to explore, to get off the path. I wandered down near the pond in damp mud, then climbed down on both sides of the creek to walk the red-rocked banks. On one end, you can see the metal bridge in the distance, on the other, the stream winds away from the boundaries of its stony beach.

Instead I found the place full and brimming with summer—all green leaves and wildflowers in golden sunlight. It’s the most beautiful place in this city and I’m content to think it’s still a wild, hidden treasure.

On the climb up from the creek, tufts of dogwood cotton had collected along the outer edges of the trail, as if they’d been swept from side to side to clear the path. They’re the last remnants of spring, a season I missed entirely at Martin Nature Park. Instead I found the place full and brimming with summer—all green leaves and wildflowers in golden sunlight. It’s the most beautiful place in this city and I’m content to think it’s still a wild, hidden treasure. It’s vast enough to feel like you could get lost, but small enough to know all the well-marked trails will lead you back home.

I passed a few people along the trail, all with a nod and “Good morning.” Most were alone, like me, and I wondered as we exchanged glances—do you need this place like I do? Do you need the tall trees with branches curved into a canopy of shade above, the open meadows that rustle with tall grass, the creek that ripples and murmurs over eroded stone?

Yes, I think. I know we both do.

And we continue off in our own separate directions, down our own trails.

***

 

 

Lessons in Firewood

The interstate unfolds into western Oklahoma—where it’s flat, so flat. Just past Yukon and El Reno, there’s nothing but farms and blue sky on all sides of the highway.

Long stretches of fields of bright yellow flowers also lined the highway, north and south—what crop was it? Canola. Canola is something farmers plant on the “off” years, between wheat crops, to cleanse the land of poison-resistant weeds that can crowd out the wheat.

Long stretches of fields of bright yellow flowers also lined the highway, north and south—what crop was it? Canola.

Canola is something farmers plant on the “off” years, between wheat crops, to cleanse the land of poison-resistant weeds that can crowd out the wheat.

The yellow fields were really beautiful against the blue sky of an early April morning. Perfect complimentary colors. I’d never seen anything like it before, not in Oklahoma. The scene waited not far from where I live, but I don’t venture out in that direction very often.

The drive up to Roman Nose State Park is uneventful except for those fields of yellow canola flowers. There are a few highway signs, telling you where to turn. There are a few small, empty-looking towns—Geary, Watonga. They’re the type of towns that confirm any theories about the decline of rural America—as people move away, to the cities, the towns get run-down and forgotten. At least that’s the view from the highway—old battered houses, beat-up cars, vacant buildings with faded signs.

We finally made it. Within the hour, we’d picked out a campsite near the lake, and staked the tent into the ground. We made lunch, sitting at the picnic table in the sunlight.

“Is there anything better than a sandwich?” I asked, after my first bite.

How satisfying it all was, all of it.

***

Roman Nose State Park was named after Henry Roman Nose, a chief that owned all 600 acres of the property. That’s all the signs told, with a line drawing of a Native American, in a feathered headdress with an exaggerated, angular nose.

The park is small, a dot on the map, really. We found the place quiet, and mostly empty—the first campsite off the road had just a truck and tent already set up, and the second—the one we chose—was completely vacant.

After lunch, we walked down the street to a putt-putt course and to the General Store, where brightly-colored paddle boats floated near the dock of the lake.

“Fifteen dollars for the hour,” the lady behind the counter told me when I asked about them. “And you can take your dogs,” she laughed, adding, “as long as they don’t jump out.”

I nodded, thanked her, paid, and left. We decided instead to play putt-putt, while the dogs laid out on the narrow greens, their leashes tied to a tree. It was a quirky course—painted metal statues of a castle and a cactus and a smiling Bugs Bunny, all with curved tunnels at their bases. At the end, we tallied up the scores. Jacob beat me by three strokes.

We wandered back to the campsite, only to find we had new neighbors. They’d already set up their tent while we were gone. You could hear the old lady coughing and laughing, instructing her companion as they finished up setting up camp. ”

Now that hook goes there,” she said in a raspy, hoarse voice. Then she added, “I’m glad I’ve been to the carnival.”

We laughed, eavesdropping, looking over our shoulders from the picnic table to watch them work.

***

We’d gotten instructions on where to hike from the lady at the main lodge of the park. She’d highlighted the trail on a map she gave us.

“This leads up to Inspiration Point. It’s the highest point of the park, well, of the whole area.” I looked down at the map, noting the switch-back looking part near the top of the hill.

So we set off. The terrain was arid—red clay earth, broad-billed cacti, fields of dry grass. The hike beside the lake was tree-covered and shaded, then it opened up into a clearing where the trail followed the dam on the north side of the lake.

So we set off. The terrain was arid—red clay earth, broad-billed cacti, fields of dry grass. The hike beside the lake was tree-covered and shaded, then it opened up into a clearing where the trail followed the dam on the north side of the lake.

We’d been walking already for ages, but you could make out the RV campsite on the other side of the lake; it seemed so close, too close for how long we’d been walking. I looked down at the map again, trying to recognize the turns in the trail with what we were seeing. The map exaggerated it all, but I could match it up.

The climb up to the top of the hill was more narrow and steep in some places. The dogs followed behind. I could hear Littleman panting and I looked back at him a few times. Even though I worried he was thirsty, he looked happy. Ranger followed behind Jacob. He was also panting, and not looking quite as happy, but he kept up.

We finally made it to the top—an overlook with a vista of the whole park and the small, red canyons to the north. There was a podium with a drawing of the same canyons, except a wide river snaked back and forth between them. The scene didn’t look quite like that now—the river had long ago been dammed up to make the lake, and the clearing between the canyon was now thickly tree-covered and green.

I sat down, resting, on the rocks, wanting to take the time to appreciate why we’d come: the view.

***

Camping isn’t quite camping without a campfire. When we paid the $12 fee for our campsite, I’d asked about getting a bundle of firewood. I’d read in the park FAQs you had the option to buy bundles—or just take what you could find from the woods.

Jacob hesitated when Monty, the man behind the desk, reminded us of this.”It’ll save you $5,” he assured us.

So Jacob told him we wouldn’t need the firewood after all. I didn’t disagree, even though I’d planned to just buy it, and save the hassle. Monty scribbled out where he’d written out “firewood” on our receipt and handed it back to us.

After the hike, we were hungry—it was already after 6pm. And that’s when our firewood situation became more obvious. I scavenged the area, but only found a few armfuls of twigs, and a few more substantially-sized fallen branches. That’s when I started to get worried.

“This isn’t going to be enough to last us all night,” I told Jacob finally. I knew I had a scolding, I-told-you-so tone.

“I’ll go back to the lodge to see if we can buy some now,” he said, calm, as always.

He left while I went back to scavenging around the campsite for what I could find—which wasn’t much.

He came back with bad news. “I guess they’re all out,” he said. “I could hear the park ranger on the radio saying something about it. He told us he’d come by with what he had left, but it’s not much.”

When the park ranger did come by, the bed of his truck was filled with huge logs and stumps—nothing you could easily burn. “I’d sell ya this stuff, but you’d have to have a pretty good fire going already.”

I got more and more panicked. “What are we going to do?” I wailed. “I’ve only found these twigs,” I said, pointing to my embarrassing pile beside the fire pit. “This won’t last us at all.”

“Here, I’ll go drive back up to that trailhead and see what I can find.”

I was really, really worried. I couldn’t imagine sitting in the dark without a fire. It would have been a complete camping failure. While he was gone, I finally sat down, feeling helpless. At the campsite behind us, there was a man giving a Bible study. His voice carried across the lake. He read some verse out of 1 Corinthians. I faded in and out of paying attention, watching the road for Jacob.

I saw his car pass in the opposite direction, down the street, and I knew that was a bad sign.

***

I knew everything would be ok when he turned the car around to back in, an indication that he had something to unload. And he did. He’d found plenty of good firewood.

The sight of that firewood stacked in the back of the car–what a beauty. It felt like a gift, like we’d caught a boatful of fish. We’d have plenty.

“Down by the amphitheater,” he said. “There’s plenty more if we need to go back.” He nodded down the road, then shrugged like it was no big deal.

I hugged him tightly. “You saved the day, honey.”

The sight of that firewood stacked in the back of the car–what a beauty. It felt like a gift, like we’d caught a boatful of fish. We’d have plenty.

***

We cooked our hotdogs over the fire, watched as the sun faded into dusk. More campers had arrived—a father and son took the spot across from us, and a family with two toddlers and a dog to our left. A carful of teenagers arrived just after sunset, staking their tent by the light of their headlights. I was glad the close quarters didn’t seem too bad, after all.

I put on a few more layers when night fell and slipped on an extra pair of pants to stay warm. We listened to the guy, still giving a Bible study, hours later. I tried to make sense of his sermon (he actually called it that: when I was preparing this sermon.)

“I bet he isn’t even talking that loud,” Jacob said. “His voice just carries.”

We stayed up until nearly eleven, the last campfire glowing into the night. We finally settled into the tent, putting the dogs in their beds, zipping up our sleeping bags. The floor of the tent went downhill slightly, so your head sloped into the incline.

It’s not a great night’s sleep—camping. But that’s definitely not the point.

***

The sun was just coming up over the lake—and the sight of it was mysterious and ethereal. With the storm clouds in the distance, it wasn’t a bright sunrise—just a blue dawn, the morning light coming from behind the clouds, all blue. I snapped a few photos of the scene—the light reflecting off the lake, the shadows of the clouds and trees. It felt like my secret—the feeling that early morning usually gives you: hushed reverence.

We woke, before dawn, to long rumbles of thunder. Their location seemed distant, but I couldn’t believe it. I’d checked the weather before we left to make sure–no rain.

More rumbles of thunder. No one seemed too alarmed (except of course, Ranger). No one was stirring outside, or talking. It thundered and thundered. So we finally got up, while it was still dark.

The sun was just coming up over the lake—and the sight of it was mysterious and ethereal. With the storm clouds in the distance, it wasn’t a bright sunrise—just a blue dawn, the morning light coming from behind the clouds, all blue.

I snapped a few photos of the scene—the light reflecting off the lake, the shadows of the clouds and trees.

It felt like my little secret—the feeling that early morning usually gives you: hushed reverence.

***

We packed up everything in perfect time—right before the storm arrived and the downpour came. We even had time to build one last campfire, making a pot of coffee and roasting a few croissants over the fire.

The thunder truly had been a warning of sorts, a “get ready.” Our phones wouldn’t work, so there was no radar to consult. It was just the sky and the sound of it, telling us.

We were on the road before 8am, headed home. Once we had service, the radar revealed the storm, heading straight for the park, a giant glob of green and red and yellow.

“It’s going to rain all day,” Jacob said.

I thought about the people that remained—the father and son and the raspy-voiced couple with their fishing poles, the teenagers. The young family was also packing up as we left; they weren’t going to ride it out either.

“Man, I love camping,” I said. “I’m so glad we did this.”

Would we have gone if we’d known there was a chance it would storm?

 

The Hunt

I had just finished a workout at the gym and was settling into my favorite part of necessary, obligatory exercise: stretching. I was standing near a wall, grabbing the ankle of my foot, when I noticed something: a pink plastic Easter egg, hidden down in the center of the leg of one of those aerobic step risers.

I noticed a few more eggs scattered around. There was an orange one in the corner behind a rack of hand weights, and a blue one poking out from behind a stack of yoga mats. Why were they there? I could only imagine they were the spoils of a recent Easter egg hunt for the after-school kids. I looked around, wondering if anyone else had seen them, too.

I’ll admit it—my first thought? Candy. But as an upstanding, cardio-committed adult, I decided to abstain from picking one up, shaking it, and keeping it safely in my palm until I was driving away from the parking lot. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d found something—that little pink egg, even if I had left it behind. It was in an excellent hiding spot, and I’d been the one to find that last little lost Easter egg.

* * *

On the drive home, I got nostalgic about Easter. I still have the wooden Easter basket my grandpa made for me when I was a kid. Both ends of the basket are shaped like a bunny’s face, and it’s painted white, with lines for whiskers around the nose. My name is painted onto it, too, the handiwork of my mom. The letters are playful and arced, with decorative dots on all the ends.

Growing up, we’d wake up on Easter Sunday before church to look for our Easter baskets. They had been carefully hidden around the house, and we’d tiptoe around while my mom gave us “hot” or “cold” clues. Nothing was better than knowing you were getting closer, like following a treasure map.

Once we’d discovered our baskets, we could dig into the bounty of treats they held—SweeTarts, Nerds, Peeps, Chocolate Bunnies. Sometimes, I could make my trove last all week, but usually I’d dig in and delightfully overdose on sugar. The wrappers would be scattered around me on the floor, the only evidence of everything I’d consumed.

The Hunt & the Reward

Maybe there will always be something remarkable about a hunt—and the reward. Once we’re adults, the hunt turns to more intangible things, and the clues get harder to discern (and that’s assuming we’re given any). And the reward? That’s where it’s so easy to lose sight. We’re harder to satisfy. We don’t take the time to savor what we find.

What’s so special about these memories? Are our childhoods only magnified once our roles are reversed, once we’re the one stuffing candy into plastic eggs, hiding wooden baskets under blankets?

Maybe there will always be something remarkable about a hunt—and the reward. Once we’re adults, the hunt turns to more intangible things, and the clues get harder to discern (and that’s assuming we’re given any). And the reward? That’s where it’s so easy to lose sight. We’re harder to satisfy. We don’t take the time to savor what we find.

Discovering that lost Easter egg today felt like a benevolent reminder–don’t stop hunting for meaning in the everyday. The search is on—for little bits of beauty and meaning. The rewards truly are all around us, but they’re hidden until we tune our eyes to the shape and color and texture or sound of it, or until we break open what we find to examine it, and taste the sweetness.

 

To Facebook with … Love Loathing

I have a confession: I hate Facebook. And I’m not wading into exaggerations here (which I’ll admit I’m prone to do)—I hate it. Facebook, for me, evokes the same feeling of other things I really despise—like sitting in traffic, using the stair climber machine at the gym, going to Walmart, or owing taxes.

So how exactly did I get here? It wasn’t always this way. Once, a long, long time ago, Facebook was different. At the time I joined, Facebook required you to have a college email address. So, at the time, Facebook was really just an online version of a very limited social circle—your college friends and classmates.

I know that potentially sounds very superior and exclusive, but it made the purpose of having a profile on the site a little more simple. You posted what you were doing over the weekend or how awful your latest art history exam went. You made plans for study dates and wrote on someone else’s wall with inside jokes. Most of all, you knew everyone you ever knew didn’t have access to it—to this particular online representation of yourself.

“A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him”
–William James

William James once wrote, “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” But what happens when you’re forced to choose just one “social self” to display? When the audience grows to include your family, your coworkers, your elementary school classmates, your childhood Sunday School teacher? This makes the question of what you share and how you portray yourself a bit more difficult.

One thing seems to be certain: it’s easy to make sure this online version of yourself is the very best version of yourself—always saying the right thing, always smiling, always doing something fabulous or exciting.

But is that “self” even really a real person?

A New Era in Social Comparison (and Discontent)

I think Facebook is a great, wide ocean of potential discontent and jealousy and envy, even if we try our best to be good, smiling Christian souls. When all we see of other people’s lives are the happiest, perfect moments, our vision gets blurred. If everyone else’s lives are so great, shouldn’t ours be, too? Or shouldn’t we be trying our hardest to make sure our lives look just as shiny and happy and fulfilled and worry-free?

During my lifetime I’ve seen a shift, but I want to be careful about the blind nostalgia of “the good old days.” Keeping up with the Joneses is a phrase that’s been around for more than one hundred years1, so I’m not naive to think we aren’t all given to comparing ourselves to others, even on some subconscious or irrational level. We can’t help but compare what we have to what other people have, but maybe there was a time when what we potentially had to envy was a bit more limited.

Maybe social comparison (and social discontent) was more limited in scope—back before Facebook. I think Facebook is a great, wide ocean of potential discontent and jealousy and envy, even if we try our best to be good, smiling Christian souls.

When all we see of other’s lives are the happiest, perfect moments, our vision gets blurred. If everyone else’s lives are so great, shouldn’t ours be, too? Or shouldn’t we be trying our hardest to make sure our lives look just as shiny and happy and fulfilled and worry-free?

7 Facebook Rules to Live By (Or Die Trying)

So what’s the solution to all my Facebook woes? Do I jump ship, as many brave souls have done before me? Believe me, I’ve considered it.

I think, for me, the greater challenge is having a healthier and balanced relationship with dear ‘ol Facebook. I’ve started developing my own Facebook Rules to Live By (or Die Trying):

1. Set limits with my time. I can’t mindlessly scroll through timelines, refresh for new notifications, go through other people’s 1000-photo albums (alas, feeling like a “creeper”). Are there better ways I could be spending my time? Heck yes. Every minute I spend on Facebook is one minute lost doing something more productive or refreshing, so I need to be conscious of this.

2. Be mindful of how Facebook makes me feel (which is usually lousy). Have I ever really gotten onto Facebook, wanting to yell with delight, “THIS IS SO GREAT! THIS IS BETTER THAN VACATION!” No. But I’ve learned it’s important to know and recognize emotions—especially negative ones. Am I raging mad at someone’s political rant in my newsfeed? Absolutely. Am I feeling helpless to change their whole worldview with one well-worded comment? Yep. Do I feel really behind in things like foreign-country visits or entering motherhood? Yes, and yes.

3. Evaluate my motivations for what I share. This is a big one for me. Am I bragging? Am I showing off? Is it authentic? Does it represent good boundaries between what’s public and private?

4. Be conscious of how I grade myself on feedback and comments. Do I want to feel noticed, recognized, and approved? Do likes and comments really mean those things? Really?

5. Be ok that I might be missing out on knowing some important life events. Sure, I’m fine with giving up the knowledge of what some acquaintance from grade school ate for dinner last night, but I also have to be ok that I’m missing out on photos of my sweet nieces, or of my cousins (all growing up so quickly!) by my limited Facebook involvement. If I set limits on the time I spend on Facebook, I’m bound to miss out on something.

6. Be more intentional about fostering relationships and having personal interactions with those that I love. Facebook isn’t a substitute for a phone call or meeting up for coffee. It isn’t an excuse to not make time for spending time with friends and family. I shouldn’t pretend to know what’s going on in your life based on your recent Facebook posts.

7. Value privacy. See it as a rare, special gift. Are some moments (and the pictures of those moments) not for anyone else to see or know about? Does knowing that a moment—a dinner out with friends, a concert, a vacation—is something only you will live and experience make it a more valuable memory? I’m starting to think so.

So to everyone out there scrolling Facebook timelines, thinking needles in their eyeballs would be a better alternative, I feel your pain. What will we think of Facebook in ten, twenty years? I don’t know. But for now, I want to see Facebook for what it really is—a digital, highly-curated version of our imperfect lives. It will never beat living the real thing, everyday. It will never beat truly knowing and loving those that are dearest to us.

It will never beat seeking to view the entirety of life, holding the good days and bad days close.

 

 

Our Four-Lettered Selves

One of my favorite ways to spend an evening is with two of my favorite girlfriends, Emily and Rachel. For over a year now, we’ve been meeting about once a month for what we’ve deemed “Creative Betterment.”

“Know your own bone,” Thoreau wrote. “Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, gnaw it still.” Of course, the beginning of this powerful piece of wisdom is: “Do what you love.” In order to do what we love—whether we are woodworkers, legal-aid attorneys, emergency room physicians, or novelists—we must first know ourselves as deeply as we are able. ‘Know your own bone.’ This knowledge can be messy […] But it is at the center of our life’s work, this gnawing, this unearthing. There is never an end to it. Our deepest stories—our bones—are our best teachers. Gnaw it still.”
—Dani Shapiro, Still Writing 

We meet up at a little tea house not far from my house, get teapots of our favorite tea, and talk. We talk about what we’ve been working on lately and how things are going. We talk about issues we’re having in our creative pursuits and, usually, between the three of us, come up with creative solutions to our latest conundrums. Sometimes, it’s all high-fives and great-jobs (yes, we have show-and-tell time).

Ladies just need to talk. I know that now—as much as I need to write things out, I also need to talk them out. So our little meetings have been a chance for me to wade in about writing and the challenge of balancing creative work with the rest of life, and how to stay inspired. They were the first to know that I’d decided to write a book a year ago, and sometimes I wonder if I could have actually gotten it finished without our meetings (and their friendship). They’ve kept me sane, focused, accountable—through verbal processing and the cutest little teapots of sweet almond tea.

Last night, we met up again. It was a damp, dreary night—a perfect night for hot tea and staying indoors. I brought a book along to share: Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive. I’d emailed Emily and Rachel earlier in the week to ask them to take a personality test. Since taking the test myself last week and getting my results, I’ve been enamored with everything I could find to read about my personality type.

Why? Well, it’s spooky. I’ve learned things about myself—those rare, objective things that are completely outside of your own arrived-at revelations. It was a glorious dose of insight. And I hoped I could share it, that I wouldn’t be the only one feeling like I’d just gotten a healthy heap of affirmation.

Know Your Own Bone

My personality type (INFP) is prone to pursuits of self-exploration and self-discovery and introspection; it’s good to know that. I also need time to think and derive meaning. I’m an idealist; possibilities interest me more than realities. I struggle with perfectionism and sharing my work publicly—again, true to my INFP nature.

Are four letters enough to represent all the complexities of our inner lives, our preferences, our habits, our hopes and fears?

The most powerful thing I learned—without a doubt—is that I’m an introvert. While we usually think of introversion as the way we are around people versus being alone, introversion is really more about our orientation to the external world. Introversion is explained like this in Gifts Differing: “Minds inwardly directed […] interest and attention being engrossed in inner events. The real world therefore is the inner world of ideas and understanding.”

Thoreau once said, “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” Are four letters enough to represent all the complexities of our inner lives, our preferences, our habits, our hopes and fears?

Probably not, but maybe they’re a start.

 

 

 

Further Resources & Readings

Take the Personality Test
Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type by Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers
Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive by Otto Kroeger and David B. Goldstein
What Type Am I? Discover Who You Really Are by Renee Baron