Tag Archives: vulnerability

Giving failure a high five

“Oh, hi, Failure! Did you change your hair? A new outfit? I almost didn’t recognize you!”

I thought I’d gotten to know failure pretty well, after spending the better part of the last year learning that anticipated outcomes are guaranteed to change. I worked to recognize that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and realized that it is better to succeed at failing than failing to succeed. I had gotten an ‘A’ in the art of failure.

Or so I thought.

Despite trying to bring the message of failing forward to my graduate community, of discussing radical vulnerability as a vital element of collaboration and research praxis, of learning that my self worth is not tied to outcomes, of embracing that failure is an inherent (and welcome!) part of the graduate school experience (if we adjust our expectations to welcome it!)… amidst all of these exercises and conversations, these adventures into the art of failing gracefully, I had forgotten how to recognize and embrace failure in other parts of my life.

Higher education, and graduate education in particular, systematically mark failure as negative. With limited contact with faculty advisers, we often only hear feedback if we’ve done something exceedingly well (i.e. validating our self-worth with positive outcomes), or if we’ve done something exceedingly wrong (i.e. doubting self-worth and belongingness in our departments/fields/careers because of negative outcomes). This extends further into how we educate our undergraduate students. As a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out, the bias against failure is deeply engrained into how we evaluate students, how we structure assignments, and how we discuss the learning process.

This fall, I set out to unlearn my negativity bias towards failure in the academy. It meant letting go of seeing a tenure track job as the only sign of success. It meant learning how I assess success on my own terms. It meant recognizing that there would be (and have been, and will continue to be) roadblocks along the way that trip me up, make me stumble, where I don’t always ‘get an A’. I was definitely learning to fail at being an all-star academic; I was learning to fail at being an ever-present member of my graduate community; I was learning to fail at identifying and articulating my own needs, especially to an audience that isn’t primed to hear that kind of language.

Given how deeply this failure-bias pervades higher ed, there were many opportunities to practice throughout the last year… Didn’t get accepted to teach the new class on Nonprofits that I spent 2 weeks developing with all of my heart and soul? Not a problem: I get to choose how I respond to such changes in my expectations! Fantastically gaffing up the AAG presentation this year because of technological woes? What an opportunity to recognize that my self-worth isn’t tied to the outcomes of how well technology operates in a session that bears my name! Forgetting everything about everyone I’ve ever read in geography during my Generals defense? Fantastic! What a way to recognize the humor and humility and imperfection that comes with new experiences.

All of this is to say, it is no wonder that I’ve come to view failure through a pretty narrow lens. And, along the way, I’ve forgotten how to identify (and embrace) opportunities for failure in other parts of my life.

I read a lot of food blogs, I live in an incredibly fit and healthy city, I eat on a mostly Paleo/Primal template because it has proven to be what makes my body and mind feel best, I am surrounded by a group of highly entrepreneurial friends, I have a large, dynamic network of absolutely incredible women in my life (near and far), and I am a graduate student in one of the strongest geography departments in the country, under two of the most brilliant women I’ll ever have the pleasure to know (this sounds hyperbolic, but I guarantee, it is not).

Who am I kidding? Against this backdrop, of course I am setting myself up for failure! Because I have created a landscape of unreasonable expectations based on amalgamations and abstractions of many individuals into an unrealistic whole. Even though I know, empathically, that all of the individuals in each of these realms has their own struggles, imperfections and shame tapes, I’ve still developed my metrics for success against a set of unrealistic paradigms. It is patently false that every person in Seattle runs every day, that those Paleo food bloggers never have cupcakes, that every other grad student knows how to write grant proposals, that all of my friends have amazing partners, or that I am the only kid on the block not brewing my own kombucha.

So, with this realization, I’m going to try to give failure a high five. I’ll say, “of course I’ll have a cupcake, because it’s Kori’s birthday! ” I say, “no, I will not run today, because it literally just rained 2 inches in 36 hours, and y’all are crazy”, and I will say, “I actually have no idea how I’m going to fund my dissertation work, but thanks to my entrepreneurial friends, I’m starting to figure it out!” Failure, in all parts of life, not just graduate school, is par for the course.

I won’t stop giving my soapbox pitch for embracing failure within the academy. This feels more important to me ever, as we lose too many bright and amazing graduate students who see their dis-ease with the academy as a sign of failure, and thus, as a sign that they should leave. That said, now that I’ve spent a solid amount of time learning how to fail at grad school, I think it’s time I learn and embrace failure in the other parts of my life. Not as a sign of weakness or a problem, but as an inevitable step in learning to be a more wholehearted, vulnerable and connected individual. Failure means I’m trying new things. It means I’m learning, and it means that I’m imperfect and human.

A narrative of engagement

*The following is the text + images I shared during a session on Publicly Engaged Critical Geographies at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, FL**

Today I’m going to share a bit of a long form personal narrative, and explore my path towards engaged scholarship. I’ll reflect a bit on what the concept of ‘engagement’ means to me in my own work, how a practice of personal engagement allowed me to be attentive and honest to my intellectual energy, and where I see this engagement leading me in my dissertation research.

So, I come to my understanding and practice of ‘engaged scholarship’ through multiple perspectives: as a student in the Geography department at UW, as a participant in the Certificate in Public Scholarship through the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities, as a Publicly Engaged Graduate Fellow through Imagining America, and, finally, as a long standing (and often uncomfortable) participant in the nonprofit industrial complex, as it has come to be known in critical circles.

Each perspective listed above operates in different spaces, and with different people, values and expectations (for instance, even within the University of Washington, the language and standards used in Geography are quite foreign to those in the Humanities Center). In addition, each of my involvements produce their own institutional affiliations and histories, whether that be a history of the quantitative revolution at UW Geography, or histories of contentious politics with some of my nonprofit partners. And, while time prevents me from elaborating deeply on this train of thought here, I need to acknowledge that these institutional affiliations are part of my intersectional identity. Thus, in addition to reflecting on power dynamics, positionality, shared risk, intellectual curiosity, ethics, and rigor, institutional affiliation also informs how I understand, and practice ‘engaged scholarship’.

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So, with all of these affiliations and influences in mind, I understand engaged scholarship as the practice of “scholarship in action”, as described by Syracuse University’s former chancellor Nancy Cantor. It is an active scholarship: one that is not content to delve into esoteric knowledge production for knowledge’s sake (though that’s a valid cause in its own right). Active scholarship is one that is working towards social justice goals; one that requires us to have ‘skin in the game’ and shared risks; one that asks us to stay attentive and, well, engaged.

This is all well and good on paper. But I’ve often found myself losing sight of what ‘engagement’ means in practice. When this happens, I think about my favorite pastime, one which has also informed much of my activism in Seattle: cooking and sharing meals. How do I know if I’m ‘engaged’ in this work? I am highly attentive to the needs and interests of the people around me. I am willing to put my own agenda aside and hold space with my guests. I am intimately interested in what people have to share and how they feel during and after a meal. I know I am not engaged when my mind wanders, when I run through my to-do lists, when I think about what is going wrong instead of attending to the energy that is emerging.

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Eat for Equity Seattle, a local chapter of a nation-wide organization that I help co-organize, brings people together around community feasts for the greater good. Through a shared meal, we build community and raise awareness of a range of nonprofits that our guests support. Most importantly, to me, is that we bring people together to “come as you are, give as you can” –  thereby challenging the assumption that giving happens by wealthy people in elite spaces, like galas, auctions and the like.

While Eat for Equity is not scholarly in nature, the work has been absolutely central to my own personal engagement, and thus, towards my engaged scholarship. I have worked with Eat for Equity for 2 years. At some point during my work with this group, I became interested in broader questions about giving: what brings people to the table? How do we convey that anyone can ‘give’, whether that’s time, money, ideas, skills, energy? How can we show that we already live in a caring and gift economy, and that we could see this better if we expanded the lens with which we see the world? More personally, how could I do more to advance social justice through my own ability to give in multiple and creative ways?

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This series of questions came into clearer focus for me this past fall, which coincided with the beginning of my PAGE fellowship. In October, I met my fellow PAGErs at the Imagining America conference. I was blown away: here were graduate students who were curating museum exhibits, organizing rural workers, building video games with high schoolers, creating and editing open source journals, making art, writing their own blogs, and pursuing many non-academic ‘side projects’, including, a sustainable vest company called Ishi Vest, that I must plug, because they are charming, beautiful, and run my dear friend Harishi in Chicago.

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After only 4 hours of knowing these folks, I felt a deeper sense of home than I have ever felt in my own geography department.  This interdisciplinary group of grad students came from multiple institutions. Through the course of our meeting, it became clear that our unifying fiber was that all of the PAGE fellows were “project people” – never satisfied with one project, one interest, or one field. We were engaged in an array of spaces, with diverse stakeholders and multiple audiences. And we recognized that our own identities were fluid, shifting depending on which space and which audience with whom we engaged. I came home from this meeting absolutely buzzing, and wrote a blog post called “We Are Project People” that tried to capture the spirit an energy of our group.

Two days after that conference, I met with the program director of Social Justice Fund, a social justice philanthropic foundation based in Seattle. I had scheduled this meeting weeks prior, interested to learn more in how I could be involved in a ‘giving project’; many people who knew me in Seattle suggested I get involved as an extension of my interests in eat for equity, in giving, and in social justice more broadly. But this involvement was just going to be another ‘thing’ I did. Just another group to know and work with.

Meeting the PAGE Fellows encouraged me to see my interest in practices of giving differently. Up to that point, I’d sidelined this as an “extra-curricular interest”. Eat for Equity was just a fun thing I did on the side. Social justice fund was just going to be another community connection I fostered. My real project was going to be a critique of youth empowerment programs. And I thought I might be able to involve Social Justice Fund academically through the Practicum component of the Public Scholarship Certificate.

I think back to the anecdote I shared about having a meal together, and whether or not I could identify feelings of engagement. I wasn’t necessarily able to recognize that questions of giving were the thing that was capturing my attention and engaging me. But I was certainly beginning to see that questions of youth empowerment were not engaging me. I was apathetic, passive and lacked investment in the intellectual and political stakes of that project.

In fact, it was not long after I started recognizing my own disengagement that I had a powerful conversation with Ben, here. I told him about my excitement about SJF, and how I was thinking about partnering with them as a side project for my Practicum. He looked at me, quizzically, and said, “That sounds like a dissertation…”

So. I sat with that. I thought about the energy that the PAGErs brought to their projects, and the rich engagement that fueled their intellectual and personal lives. And I started to re-evaluate and take greater notice of my own excitement about these questions of giving, social justice, politics, donor-activism – more broadly, just questions of how, why and where people give. I started to take these questions seriously. I started to realize that my own lived experiences, the ones which I had heretofore thought of as “side projects” were the threads and fibers weaving together to inform my landscape of scholarship. These were it turns out, inseparable.

Now, as I start to shape my dissertation project, I look more intentionally to these lived experiences, community engagements, and scholastic projects as a larger tapestry of publicly engaged work. I share a few of these experiences here.

There is my involvement with the Mapping Youth Journeys program, a multi-year participatory mapping project with middle school students in Seattle. Through a cultural history mapping curriculum, I was part of a team that sought to understand how mapping shaped students’ civic engagement. Importantly, this work showed us how iterative the learning process was: the students’ insights shaped the direction of the research, they showed us that they were not ‘civic actors in waiting’, but that they already held a great deal of cultural wealth and civic knowledge. The mapping component allowed them to connect the dots of their situated knowledge in new ways, but they were, themselves, publicly engaged individuals who were able to express their knowledge in digital and non-digital ways. This project demonstrated how to take non-expert knowledges seriously, and to be open, attentive, and engaged to findings that we did not expect.

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There is my vast participation with nonprofit organizations, as a staff person, a volunteer, a scholar and a mentor. One that I’ll draw on here, is my Master’s work with a Seattle based nonprofit, but I cannot say it was entirely engaged. Through that project, I realized that self-reflexivity does not equal engagement. I was intimately aware and involved in a reflexive practice, but I never felt engaged in the way that felt open and invested. I didn’t have much at risk. I was an observer, a critic. A participant, yes, but with not much skin in the game. My presence was not missed when I was gone, and my contributions did not make many ripples.

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There is my current involvement with the Relational Poverty Network, a growing network of scholars, community members, students, researchers and activists connecting people and ideas to challenge poverty and inequality. As a member of the Network, and mostly as a research assistant, I am not involved in a ‘research project’ per se, but I am engaged in thinking deeply about what the Network can do, how it connects to multiple audiences, how its work can engage policy makers, how we can be vulnerable and share risk with our current and future community partners, and how we can engage in the political project of making new knowledge that disrupts reductivist notions of poverty.

This all brings me to my current engaged work with Social Justice Fund. Despite Ben’s prodding that my ‘Practicum’ sounded like a dissertation project, I am currently completing my practicum with SJF.

But they will also be one of my collaborators for my dissertation project! The youth empowerment project bit the dust a while back. I realized that to honor my own intellectual and political energies, I had to be honest and dive into where my engagement was leading me. So, in the fall I will begin 12 months of fieldwork that seeks to understand geographies of giving and philanthropy in the PNW. The backbone of the project is to understand the shifting political economy of philanthropy post recession, and the new spaces and subjectivities that emerge from philanthropic engagements. I want to know about how philanthropy can enable politics at various scales.

While I will engage with SJF formally through this process, I am already engaged in the program and have ‘skin in the game’ as it were. I will be part of a giving project, I am on their informal board of ‘community engagement’, I volunteer, and I’m completing a narrative analysis of their rich archival materials for my practicum. And, when the dissertation wraps up, I will not diminish my engagement with SJF. As long as I’m a resident of Seattle, I envision being part of giving projects, and a fierce advocate for the work they do.

This is a story about living an engaged life. It is not enough to expect graduate students, scholars, administrators, activists and advocates to be engaged in our work. We must be attentive to our own energies, needs, curiosities and positionality. To live an engaged life is to take time to check in, to evaluate where and when you can share risks, to reflect on one’s politics and privilege, and to pursue that feeling of being ‘in it’. Think about sitting around a dinner table, with dear friends, with a beautiful dish of food shared between you: that is a moment of engagement, and it is that feeling for which I think we should strive.

**Following this talk, there was a lively conversation about how to bring vulnerability and risk into our work. For more on this, I recommend Richa Nagar’s scholarly work on radical vulnerability, or Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability, or her book Daring Greatly. Please reach out if you’d like to continue the conversation!** 

Synergies and Satisfaction: Performing my Professional Self

Exactly one week after finishing my exams, (and a celebratory dinner of pho), I enjoyed a spontaneous fancy-dinner, went home happy, sleepy, and full of delicious wine and beautifully arranged small plates. I was deeply grateful. And also full of dread: I knew I had, at best,  a mere 3 hours of sleep ahead of me before my early, early morning airport shuttle. I had a 5:20 AM flight  to Denver.

I did not know that flights took off that early.

There were many things that could have gotten me down about this trip, but I felt quite eager to get on route to Boulder, CO. I was attending the 20th annual Critical Geography Conference, with keynotes by Richa Nagar and Alvaro Reyes. I also was going to catch up with two old friends: one of whom is working on her MA in human-environment relations at CU-Boulder Geography, the other, a previous roommate, co-worker, co-conspirator, and fellow educator.

From a professional standpoint, this conference allowed me to explore my new research direction. The talk was not an argument, not an explanation of empirics. I presented a theoretical framework for critical geographers to engage with the nonprofit sector outside of a limiting, negative, critiquing framework, and instead encouraged a perspective that is more open, more interested in learning rather than judging, and that performs a politics of possibility rather than limitations.

I felt nervous to give this talk, initially. Drawing on the work of Gibson-Graham, I knew my work might draw criticism that it wasn’t political enough, not grounded enough, didn’t have clear enough methodology, or wasn’t going to be relevant or scalable. Not to mention, I only had one week in which to prepare this talk, practice it, and feel confident speaking about my work.

Lucky for me, it turns out my committee and I were thinking on the same page. One of my exam questions dovetailed nearly perfectly into the substance of this talk. I had previously outlined the talking points (months ago!), but didn’t know how I would populate it.

And then, a moment of synergy. Whooosh! Snap! Shhhhhwop!

I had written about applying Gibson-Graham to my dissertation project, and what I might learn through that application. I wanted to prepare a talk about how geographers could theorize the nonprofit sector in new ways. I decided to outline how geographers have theorized the nonprofit sector, what a Gibson-Graham inspired analysis would include, how I’m envisioning mapping that engagement onto social justice philanthropy, and what other parts of the nonprofit sector critical geographers could engage with.


I only had a few days to prepare this talk (because, let’s be real, my brain was 60% mush for 4 days after my exams. I didn’t get started on this until Tuesday, and I left for CO on Friday). I started writing out a scripted paper to read in Boulder.

Except that this supposed stress-reliever proved to be anxiety-producing. I do not read papers when I give talks. I talk. Conversationally. To engage the audience. To translate outside of academese. Reading from a paper would have confined me to, well, reading. If I go off script, what then? I’m lost.

So I took a deep breath and reminded myself of my strengths. I know this stuff. I just wrote about it for three days straight, and have been thinking about it deeply for months. And I like presenting and talking, and making audiences feel engaged and at ease and curious. I scrapped the working paper and went back to my roots. Bullet points, talking points, images. I blocked off conference rooms at Office Nomads and practiced the talk a few times. I wore high heels. I paced around and performed my professional self (to an empty room).

Fast forward to Saturday, when I gave my talk. The whole weekend, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction with my professional identity. The Critical conference marked the first conference I’ve presented in since realizing that I can be (and am) more than a graduate student. I’m a professional interested in creative philanthropy, a politics of possibility, and  re-politiczing the nonprofit sector.

Being able to represent myself in this multi-modal capacity was so… liberating. I wore my multiple hats proudly throughout the weekend. When people asked what I did, I thought, “Yeah, you know what? I do a lot of things. My graduate work is but one aspect of how I engage with these things.” When fellow grad students asked what is on my horizon, I said, “You know what? I don’t know. And I feel comfortable with that. Because I love to teach, I love to research, and I know I have skills that transfer across multiple paths. I will probably end up designing my own hybrid career, but I know I will continue engaging with the nonprofit sector and hopefully teaching and researching as well. Maybe I’ll end up consulting.  Maybe I’ll teach. Maybe both!” And when I responded to questions after my talk, it was with a confidence and clarity that I haven’t quite felt before in academic settings. People asked me things because they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. And I had things to say, because I’ve been living and breathing this for years! It’s not to say that I’m an expert. It just felt… comfortable. For one of the first times (and hopefully not the last!)

When I say ‘performing my professional self’, it is, for the first time, a positive thing. I wasn’t miming or pretending. I was performing within a  comfortable role, albeit it a new one. I felt like an understudy to my own professional life who finally got the chance to take the leading role and expand into it. I added my own creative flair to a role that had previously been modeled to me, but never felt my own.

What a huge gift. A relief. I am filled with gratitude for having the space to think deeply, try on and perform this professional self, and find a deep satisfaction with the ways I’m choosing to engage, share and act.

I’ve always been a juggler.

Interesting that on the heels of my last two posts, which praised the pursuit of projects, I drastically reoriented my own standing in relation to my multiple projects.

Without going into much personal detail, suffice it to say I recently found myself smack dab in the middle of a big internal reorientation. A few things had changed in my life over the summer, and in the months that followed, I’ve needed to take time to reorient the internal structuring of my identity, habits, assumptions and priorities. This process has been exhausting, it has been scary, and it has required me to drastically reconfigure my daily activities. There has been very little progress on school work. I’ve stayed committed to my teaching, but my own progress has been sluggish. Viscous, even.

Let me pause and say: everything is ok. I am doing great. In fact, I feel more centered and at peace than I have in… years. The energy I have is not from the adrenaline of being busy every second of every day, but from knowing that I have the capacity, skills and knowledge to figure out how I want to (re)build and (re)establish the infrastructure and architecture of my life. Where low-levels of anxiety used to be the norm, now they are a warning beacon. They are letting me know that I’m clinging to old habits, trying to fit too many things into a life that has asked me for simplicity. These stress beacons make me conscious of when I am trying to make plans and find conclusive answers to things down the road, of which I have little control and are often distractions for what I’m feeling right now.

That is the thing about being a project person. It’s really easy not to look inward. I was always scheduling the next meeting, brainstorming the next conference, scheming for my next trip, calculating a budget; I was always planning my days to be the most efficient possible, so I could fit in yet another thing. My colleagues were baffled by me: how do you get so much done? Literally, how do you do it?! My advisers praised me: you have what it takes to be an academic! you’re so good at time management, you’ll be a wonderful professor! My family and friends were always supportive, but had also come to expect that they would rarely see me, for I was so busy and had so many people to see and projects to tend to.

And one day, about a month ago, I realized: I didn’t feel good about being this person anymore. I was tired of juggling. But, but…

I am really good at juggling. I can keep multiple balls in the air, think logistically, plan efficiently. I can have a day in which I teach, grade papers, write a blog post, exercise, cook a delicious meal, go to a meeting, respond to emails, call a friend on the phone, read food blogs, catch up on twitter, and read academic articles. And I can go to bed exhausted, my body tense and my mind in a whir. I am really good at to-do lists.

Just because I can juggle, doesn’t mean I have to juggle. I find I am wanting simplicity,  and that I am not as satisfied by being as busy. I long for deeper connection with the people in my life, and want to nurture my capacity to look inward and explore who it is I want to be, how I want to relate to myself and others, and what types of projects I actually want to be involved in.

Just because I’m not juggling right now, doesn’t mean I’m not still a juggler. I have a lot of fear in letting go of this hyper-busy-version of myself. Can I be successful as a graduate student if I’m not cramming 15 things into a day? What if I only do four? Can I still get published? Develop my own course syllabus? Apply for grants? Teach? Be a mentor and receive mentorship? Perform department service? Continue to build relationships with community partners? Complete my exams? Develop my Public Scholarship Certificate? Go to conferences? Is it even possible? In these moments of extreme doubt (and, to be honest, wrinkled brow confusion at the vast number of *things* we’re supposed to balance as under-paid graduate students), I remember that just because I’m choosing not to tackle *all* of those things in one day, doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to. I am choosing to focus my energy and be intentional in my activities, rather than prioritizing efficiency and speed. If at some point I want to get the juggling pins out again, I can. They’ll just be in my closet, along with multi-colored juggling balls, circus knives and flame throwers.

Even though I’m really good at juggling, I can do other things, too. I am building out my repertoire of ways-of-being. In response to the litany of “Can I still…” questions above, the answer is, of course, “yes”. It might take more time, and it will be guaranteed to look different. But it is possible, because while I am a juggler, I am not only a juggler. Right now I’m feeling more like a tightrope walker: focusing, moving slowly, striving for balance, and trusting that there’s a big ole’ net to catch me when I inevitably trip, stumble and make mistakes. Maybe later I will be a clown. Perhaps someday I’ll tame lions.

Learning to understand this transition has been difficult. There were days early on when I was still going through the motions of doing-everything-all-the-time, and I felt like a ghost floating through someone else’s life. One day, I barely recognized myself in the mirror. I had no appetite. At one point, a colleague said, “you look… muted.” Hm. Concerning. Time to reevaluate.

Where once I proselytized juggling as many projects as possible (to nurture your whole self! to not limit yourself to just academia! to keep your passions and energy fresh! to collaborate and work with others!), I am now a disciple of simplicity. Making that transition within an academic department in which I could have carried around a coffee mug that said, “World’s Best Juggler!”, it is a great vulnerability to share that I am no longer performing that show. And, of course, I am not yet “good” at simplicity. I don’t know how to get an “A+” in simplicity. I do know how to get an A+ in juggling, and so I see myself slipping back into those habits, those grooves, with distressing ease. But that is when the stress signals chime in and say, “Take a step back, Elyse. Pause. Simplify. We know it’s hard. You’re not going to get an “A”. You’ll probably get a “C” at best… but at least you’re trying.”

And try I will. Because we’re all just doing the best we can, just trying to get our needs met. I am doing the best I can, and trying to get my needs met. Right now, I have a deep need for intentionality, focus, and connection. Does this mean I’m scrapping all of my projects? Not at all. But I am holding myself in a new relationship to my projects. I’m practicing saying ‘no’ before I say ‘yes’. I’m learning to do those things that feel like a gift to me, rather than doing things out of a feeling of obligation. And I am pursuing projects in which I feel like I can be my honest and whole self, whether that is a frazzled juggler, an off-balance tightrope walker, or a sad clown.