Missing Mel

Mel and me, yesterday on the stoopIt's our farewell visit, but I can't really wrap my mind around it because it feels like every other day. Like every other day when the kids are running on pure bliss in the bedroom or snacking from a shiny silver bowl around the kitchen table, Mel and me sitting on red stools and talking of ordinary things as if they are not going to be on the other side of the world soon. She asks if I'm ready for the show tonight and I shrug, saying I haven't really rehearsed because we're playing it loose and making it up as we go on this one. She teases me a little, the way only people who really love you can. She tells me about what happened at the dentist office and we both feel that ache you get when you're worried about your little ones. I tell her I finally found a gift for my husband for Christmas.


I don't have many friendships that span all my many worlds. School/playground friends who are also artist friends who are also storytelling friends. Only this one, and I felt spoiled with it the whole time.


We're both travelers, and we know the hard parts about leaving like a recipe you've learned by heart. Maybe this is why we don't say the things that don't really need saying—like what a gift it's been to be together for this season. How nothing in the world is as good as red stools and snacks in shiny silver bowls and friendships that catch stories like What Happened at The Dentist Today.


We say, send me that picture, and, I'll email you that link. And, we'll see you soon on Skype. And when it's time to go, we go, even though it aches all the way home.

Collaboration Closeup: Liz Kalloch

Top of the Rock by Liz Kalloch, from "Telling Your Story" (also current website banner)

If I were really telling the truth about this story, I would tell you how alone I felt back then. How I'd started thinking that the kind of partnerships I dreamed of were just that--pipe dreams. I would tell you that I did the Finding Your Voice course largely on my own, even though I can't stand working that way, because it was getting me through a hard winter. And it took half a dozen friends to hold me together.

Liz draws me for "Telling Your Story"

I thought about people who felt soothing to my soul, and Liz Kalloch was one of the first people to come to mind. I was trying to figure out a way to see her and spend more time with her, (we met at Squam and she lives on the other coast) and she said, "It would be really fun to create a project together".

It was like when you've had a really bad fall on the sidewalk, and you're sitting there staring at your bloody knees, too sore and dazed to try standing, and someone stops and reaches out her hand.

It was just like that.

I remember talking to Jen Gray back then, telling her how I received Liz like a gift from the gods. She said, "Liz Kalloch is an earth angel," and I said, "Oh my god, YES. That is EXACTLY what she is."

Plenty of people are talented, but not everyone is kind. Plenty of people can do the work, but not everyone can do the work in love.

And for me, the kindness and love are everything.

I wanted Telling Your Story to have as much visual beauty packed into it as possible, so we came up with this idea for Liz to do line art based on the photographs that were going into the project. The simplicity of her pieces, along with the subtle repetition, really infused the whole curriculum with visual interest without making it feel too busy. We even added her work to the "blank" pages in the back that can be inserted throughout the 3-ring binder wherever they are needed. She was my design consultant for the project as I put together the layout, working the cover with me and doing the entirety of the Telling Your Story Sound Studio design this fall.

The other idea we cooked up all those many many months ago was a new print edition of The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls manual I'd written and taught from last fall. It would feature Liz's original line art drawings, my full-color photos and some new writing. The final result is so exquisite to hold in your hands that people literally go speechless for a moment when I hand it to them.

 Front Cover: The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls

A peek inside of "The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls: A Manual", line art and design by Liz Kalloch


Back cover: The Care and Keeping of Creative SoulBy now we have so many good things cooking, I can hardly stand it. Liz is my vision catcher, my collaborator, my magic-maker and dear friend who talks me down from the tree. I couldn't be more honored to be on this journey with her, hand-in-hand, or more thrilled to share her and her work with you.



Liz Kalloch has been dancing to her own beat from an early age, when she thought the Brownie badges were ugly and made her own. (So clever, and yet so unappreciated by her troop leaders.) Her creativity bursts forth through more mediums than we can name here, but her greatest work is what she creates out of love, friendship, beauty and an adventurous heart.

Collaboration Closeup: Ophira Eisenberg and Peter Aguero

Peter and Ophira at a show at Belleville in Brooklyn

When putting together the Telling Your Story course, I wanted to add interviews with some of my friends--people who were not only amazing storytellers themselves, but who also had experience teaching storytelling. I loved the idea of working with Peter and Ophira, and giving us a chance hear from someone from a comedy background and someone from an improv background, to explore how our varied experiences impact the way we approach the art and craft of this medium.

Also, I will own up to some purely selfish motivations: there were some conversations I was longing to have, conversations that don't happen standing in line for a show or hanging out in a crowded bar afterward. There were questions I wanted to ask these two that really require a quiet room, the chance to sit face to face, cozy into your chair and really be listened to.

Ophira at Argot Studios

Ophira Eisenberg is a celebrated comic who has appeared on Comedy Central and was named a "Top Ten Comic" by New York Magazine. I've always been drawn to Ophira because she's so damn real. So much of the time when she makes me laugh, it's this laughter of surprise because she has said something so honest, and so previously unrecognized or unnamed that I'm like, "Oh my god it's so TRUE!" She has this astute observation and this willingness to own up to all kinds of things that simultaneously inspires me and makes me feel relief at not being "the only one".

A lot of people can rock a persona or a character on stage, but it takes something else entirely to stand in front of a crowd and a microphone, under a spotlight and just be true. Ophira is the real deal, all the way, and it's no surprise that she is so beloved in our community. I love that her Sound Studio interview gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how she navigates vulnerability and how she prepares stories with high emotional content.

Aguero at The BTKristmas Show, 2010

Whenever I think about the way that love makes us brave, I think about The BTK Band. The improvisational storytelling rock band, led by Peter Aguero, is my favorite to stand on stage with when I'm telling the stories that are hard to tell. They're the ultimate safety net--I know I won't lose their affection, even if I swing out wide and fall, and there is literally no where I can go that they won't go with me. I wanted TYS participants to feel that same safety, that same sense of bold permission, and having Peter collaborate on the project was the perfect way to create that.

Peter really embodies this mix of badassery and tenderness that gives me hope for my own budding inner baddass. In his sound studio interview, he gives participants the full range, addressing fears with compassionate, bold advice. He shares about the stories that have changed him forever and what gets lost when we hold back.

We recorded the Sound Studio first, in December 2010, and as I designed and finished the interactive curriculum I did my best to infuse the whole project with the spirit and sensibilities of Peter and Ophira, just as much as my own. The result is that this project is more urban and more rock and roll than anything I've previously produced. It's really an hommage to the NYC storytelling community, featuring photos of some of our favorite venues and quotes and wisdom from the friends and mentors that have taught me everything I know about the art and craft of storytelling.

There is no greater gift than working in the company of friends, and creating the Telling Your Story course with Peter and Ophira was nothing short of a dream come true.

You can find Ophira's comedy album, As Is, on iTunes. Her memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, will be available through Perseus Books in Spring of 2012.

The BTK Band can be found causing trouble the second Monday of every month, Under St. Mark's Theater. Peter and I will be together again for BARE on December 29th.


"There are times to have a guide, and times to be the guide."

I wish you were here today, dear friend that sees all the way down to my soul's bones. We would sit on my red sofa, and I would wriggle my cold toes under your warm legs and tell you that I'm struggling with that existential loneliness that's always and ever unrelated to how many people are in the room. I would tell you the long long story of all that is happening within and without me. I would tell you I'm working really hard, the kind of deep soul-shifting work that is like doing a 90-degree turn in snowshoes. In a blizzard.

You would say, Jen, it's so much.

And I would nod silently, because having this seen chokes me up.

I would say I wish there was more confirmation along the way, that after that bulky snowshoe turn there were neon signs saying: It's true! This really is the way for you! Or: Bold Future Ahead. Or even better: Rest Area Soon.

You might hold my hands in yours, and look deep into my eyes the way you do when You Really Mean It, and say, There are times to have a guide, and times to be the guide. And we would both know my number's been called for the latter. And that it kind of feels like bad news.

I wish every trailblazer had someone to follow, the way I wish every new mother had someone to mother her. This is the hardest thing about pioneering anything--this staring into the blizzard in bulky snowshoes with not a single neon sign or rabbit track before you. Just this swirling uncertain future. Trust. Hope. And the knowledge that there's no going back now. There probably never was.

It's not easy for any of us, this gathering of the raw materials of our living--the heartbreak and sorrows and joys and jubilations--and crafting out of them, somehow, a soul. Neither is the going where we've never gone before.

What is there to do? we would say. Put another kettle on, and keep going, I guess. But just saying it and being heard makes us feel better. Reminds us that neither of us are really alone.

Out the Train Window

Horizon Perfekt Camera, xpro Lomo Chrome 100 film

There were times this summer when I would have given anything to just ride and ride these tracks up and down the west coast for days, alone. Staring out the window, breathing into the motion and the miles while my soul caught up with its own changing terrain.

I didn't get my days, I got hours. I didn't get my alone, I got two children and interruptions at 30-second intervals. But I did get my train, and my window--for a few magical moments. And I am still staring out at the big big sky, whether I'm back on an East Coast beach or on a ferry or just standing by the kitchen window. Still breathing into the motion and the stillness while my soul catches up.

So many gifts have kept me company these last weeks, including some books I found on the stoop. I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and this passage made me feel certain that we knew some of the same people:

He will not ask the name of the movie star; he actually does not care. Richard, alone among Clarissa's acquaintance, has no essential interest in famous people. Richard genuinely does not recognize such distinctions. It is, Clarissa thinks, some combination of monumental ego and a kind of savantism. Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence. He is not one of those egotists who miniaturize others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be--capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you've ever imagined--it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you've left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualitites (not all of which are necessarily flattering--a certain clumsy, childish rudeness is part of his style), and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has. It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but becase he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures. Some have ended their relations with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives, have come even to depend on it, the way they depend on coffee to wake them up in the mornings and a drink or two to send them off at night.

Sharing your journey with such a character can give you the feeling of flying with Icarus--super-human and close to the gods. It can be exhilarating and inspiring, until you realize your companion has forgotten who he is, a mortal, and is married to some alternate reality in which he supercedes all boundaries and rules.

It's not easy to trade in your wings and return to the dirt, to feel yourself face-down in the kind of divot a body makes in the earth after a great fall. The ground itself is not the problem, for the ground is a great comfort--a reminder that gravity and sanity reign. It's the fear of never again feeling the wind in your hair, the worry that all your magic was an elaborate ruse.

There's a time to lay there, face-down in the dirt. And there's a time for getting up, for dusting yourself off and assuming your true height in the world. No more or no less than all you truly are, feet planted and head high. And maybe (just maybe) a little wind in your hair.

A Little Valentine's Day Magic

The girls and I roll out the sugar cookies with a rolling pin and cut them out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter while I tell them the story of how my mom made these cookies for us growing up. How they weren't the kind that we ever made together or watched her bake. When we went to sleep the night before Valentine's Day, there was no sign of them.

And when we woke up the next morning, they were there.

You were lucky, Amelia says. That's a lot of work.

Damn straight.

This is how traditions were in my family--steady, simple, without a lot of flash. You never needed much to make a little magic or to make someone's day.

These are the cookies my mom sent me on Valentine's Day in a care package when I was in college. I ate the whole freaking batch, sharing them sparingly. They are the cookies I made for my fiancee on Valentine's Day a month before our wedding because every penny I was making at my part-time job in the Men's Basketball Office was going toward the purchase of his wedding ring. I baked them in the apartment that would be our first home together.

They are the cookies my sister, Kendra, made for us the night before our move to New York. But instead of the traditional red sprinkles, she spelled out letters in the icing with the tip of a toothpick. All together they said, "Good luck in NY". We had some at our last meal all together that night and took the rest with us for the journey.

The girls and I are baking ours all together this year, a few days early for a party we're throwing for some of our second-grader friends. I frown when I realize too late that we don't have any red sprinkles, just some multi-colored, flower-shaped ones. My daughters don't know the difference, but I do. Then I taste-test one and cringe. Not like Mom's at all. Not like my sister's. I should have iced them the night I made them, not the day after, I lecture myself.

As the party creeps closer, my performance anxiety kicks in. I remember what a bad party-goer I am--how parties put my three greatest weaknesses (small talk, relaxing, having fun) on wild display. I worry that as a result I'll be a bad party-thrower. I remember the looks on our friends' faces the day before, brimming with anticipation and animation as they jumped up and down and said they already knew what they were going to wear.

Would our steady, simple, without-a-lot-of-flash party be nothing more than a big let-down? Would they look at our decorations and think that if we really cared we would have searched a little harder for the clear tape instead of settling so quickly for the masking tape?

Would they think the flower sprinkles didn't look very valentine-y, that the cookies were a bit too hard, that our heart-shaped doilie valentine craft was too juvenile or plain (for God's sake, I didn't even have glitter)?  Is it possible, I wondered, to make magic from such humble ingredients as these?

Too soon it's time to get them. I rally my adult supporters and walk ten girls home from school. Lead ten girls up to our third-floor walk-up.

I always get nervous when I go to someone's house, one of them confides.

That's okay, I say. I always get nervous when I have people over to my house. I just want them to have a good time.

Coats and backpacks come off, and it's immediately apparent that the girls have brought some magic of their own. Sparkly shirts, frilly skirts, and odes to love of things like horses proudly displayed. One of them brings a bag with candies--the heart ones with messages that it didn't even occur to me to get. The party's a hit before it even begins. Turns out, their enthusiasm and love for each other are all we really need.

It's actually a lot of fun, the nervous one reports back to me. I'm stunned as the humble ingredients and simple traditions work, and a little teary as I watch the best parts of girlhood spin around in a dance with joy.

And no one says anything but good about the cookies.

Traditional Sugar Cookies

3/4 cup shortening

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla or 1/2 tsp lemon extract

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

Mix thoroughly shortening, sugar, eggs and flavoring. Blend in flour, baking powder and salt. Cover; chill at least one hour. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Roll dough 1/8 inch thick on slightly floured wax paper. Cut into shapes. Place on ungreased baking sheet or stone. Bake 6 to 8 minutes or until very light brown.

Icing: powdered sugar, a little milk, a splash of vanilla. For Grandma's touch, add a dollop of coffee. Ice as soon as cookies cool--not the next day.