A photo of Jonas Peterson‘s son flashes across the screen and appears to be smiling at him as he tells his story to the group at What If DR 2013. Peterson urges the group t0 accept their voice.
Tamara Lackey invites the group to discover the unexamined voice during her What If DR 2013 talk.
The crowd gets some good fucking words of wisdom from Brian Buirge and Jason Bacher of GFDA during their What If DR 2013 talk. Believe in your fucking self! Show some fucking passion.
This is a very personal account…I am by no means speaking for the whole group. I believe we all gathered very different experiences from our time together…My story comes from a place that I really don’t reach very often….a place deep inside that I’ve been ignoring for far too long. With a little help from all of the innovators I was able to climb inside myself and learn something. I am so excited for how this experience has helped me grow and I’m interested to see how it will impact my work (the first photo compilation is surprising to me; it’s a totally different image from my other work. I would never have tried this in the past… mainly becuse this was born from a new thought…. but at the time, on the plane home, the idea came and I embraced it.) What If Conference is a safe place for creative people to pause and figure things out….I am so grateful for the profound experience I had with my Mother-Iffers!!
Thanks for reading these words…they are my heart.
I cannot wait to see all my new friends someday soon.
Do good work, my friends.
- Meagan Thompson
Someone asks you “What if?”
It’s the middle of July and you think that it’s a totally bizarre concept to gather over this question… but you kind of enjoy bizarre so you take a look…. and it’s really hard to figure out what exactly will happen.
You put it off.
December. You spend more time in darkness than usual and it’s driving you mad.
You realize you are a huge burning ball of unhappiness and so you decide to change.
Almost at the same time that you resolve to pursue happiness you see a post – a What If post – and you think, ‘Why not?’
Aside from the obvious answers to this question, you kind of enjoy answering a question with a question and for that reason, one month later, you take a really long plane trip to an island. The whole time on the plane to the island you keep repeating ‘no man is an island’ and you wonder why you don’t change the words because isn’t it also true that no woman is an island? So tired of hearing about men…Really. Not hating…Not complaining, but just tired. Digress. Stay on topic: First day…. you walk around a dream of pink sand, cobalt sky, turquoise water and emerald trees…
It’s too beautiful.
It’s almost too much.
You sit in a circle supported by wicker and teak in an open-air structure with plants for walls and you feel a constant warm breeze.
You talk about you and you and find yourself in tears…Perfect. You are the girl in the party dress crying…a little much, right? But, it’s hard to be away from your little light and to be fair you did just have an all night layover…You are a quarter of the way around the globe – so far from home. You forgive yourself and beg the others to forget. First night!!! Such a mess.
Second day… uncomfortable, your body has been encased in wool for months, so a swimming suit feels weird…you trace the spiderwebs on your belly and smile…what’s up with people complaining about stretch marks anyway? They are a good reminder (not that you need a reminder) but still they are there… a natural tattoo. Suddenly you see the little face before you, clear in the harsh light…. You feel better about your body, not because you are comparing to others but simply because you are living.
You gather. You listen. You see a big shark on the wall. A father tells a tale about fear, calm, determination. Your heart is racing. You think of the summer in the Bob Marshall… thick wilderness, middle of nowhere. You think of your own father and the mother grizzly bear and the element of luck, but also the incredible calm your father had as you both stood still at the edge of the river bank, watching the mother and two babies lope across the hillside 100 yards away. She was scared. You were petrified. You stood your ground; she veered to the trees.
You write your fears…bigger fears than wild animals…. fears that keep you up at night…you write them on a piece of paper and tear them to pieces and they rain down in a flurry with the whole group… our fears, white little squares at our feet.
You walk on the beach at midnight. It’s like a fairy princess dream land…. The sky seems low, the stars are there to touch. No one is talking and everything is a rich navy. You feel peace.
Next day, rain.
Hard and gray but beautiful all the same.
Minutes later there is the sun… rich, thick, it burns your arms.
You stand in the warm water and the seaweed and watch the light change and feel the ocean push and pull you.
You are small. You are so, sooo small…
Midday sunshine so, so bright. Squint your eyes and adjust your aperture; you are not worried about harsh light. It’s okay. Embrace it.
‘Snap’ sounds like a bang.
You take shots from your hip of tourist bodies…. Street photography but on a crowded beach. So fun! You realize that with the exception of the topless chicks and the dudes in Speedos, we are all reduced to the same/there is no nationality on the beach … This is not a huge revelation. It’s just comfortable to note as you wander.
You listen to a powerful woman. She asks the group to think of the dark voices that speak to you on a regular basis. It’s something you’ve never thought of but even here, at this moment you can hear the voice. And in front of everyone you say it out loud…nervous laugh…you say…. that you repeatedly hear a little black hollow voice inside your mind that says you don’t deserve it – anything (all the time). You don’t know why. But at that point your voice starts to crack a little and the full reality of the situation starts to unfold.
‘Holy shit,’ you think.
‘Holy shit. I just admitted in front of a room full of strangers that I’m super insecure and that’s really, really…. really…. fucked up. What was I thinking…’
Later others tell you that you should’ve seen the whole room bobbing their heads in unison…. Apparently, feeling unworthy is a common thing…You think of the Christians you used to hang out with in college. You think of rhetoric. You know that’s not what is happening here. You are being real…everyone is being real. You try to let it go…and you try to embrace it, too.
Later, after the conference, you tell a new friend at home about the coral sand and the jewel water and she tells you that you deserve it and it’s almost too much to take. You thank her. You tell her about your admission in front of the group and she tells you a story too. You reflect. You remind yourself that you need to be grateful. This world is a gift and it’s okay to take it in and let it become a part of you…this is your path, don’t forget about it….
At night you eat with a new friend and you are amazed by the similarities in your life paths. The setting is so fancy: gold everywhere. Your new friend tells you about her children and the rocky roads of the past…something about calling the cops… Your mind flashes to the last time, when the neighbor from downstairs gently taped on the door and timidly offered you the mace.
‘Please come out here,’ She said, glancing at the couch where he still sat, fuming. She handed it to you… closed your fingers around the tiny metal cylinder.
‘Please,’ she says and then she left.
That night you dressed the baby in his lion costume because it was his first Halloween and you left the house and you saw a young child dressed as a pony. The child tripped and spilled her candy in the street and lots of people were helping her pick it up…and you couldn’t stop crying as you watched them. When you returned home he was gone and he stayed away for two weeks. By that time he returned you had packed. You were going. You photographed a purple flower in the front yard (odd because it was the middle of November.) You stood at the Alter with him and you baptized the baby. You said goodbye on a pure white day and he cried.
In paradise you go dancing with a dude you don’t know but you kinda don’t want to dance…it’s kinda something you would’ve done in the past…this thing that happens in the dark, in the flashing lights…. It’s not your thing anymore but you do it anyway…. and he’s persistent and you’re wasted…and some people mistake kindness for flirtation….
No worries…you drink a mama juana (or ten because all inclusive is a thing you don’t understand – ‘resort’ is a world you are not used to.) You want to leave and a friend helps you to the interesting little train that winds its way to the room where you’ll stay…in your own bed.
You wake and feel you did a good job avoiding the past…. You realize that’s your old life. You walk through the sunshine and apologize to new friends for your behavior. All is forgiven but you still feel a little ridiculous.
The days slip by in paradise and you smile extra super hard and repeatedly say ‘thank you’ to the waiters at the buffet… It’s guilt and appreciation but mostly guilt…. After observing super gluttony in yourself all you wanna do is switch roles…. You are fully aware that ‘thank you’ is maybe nothing? You come from a service economy too and you did this kind of work. It sucks.
At some point between afternoon and passing out you recount the moments of the last day and anther memory floats to the surface… you remember the last photo easy you shot for the paper: the little girl with blonde hair flapping in the wind, backpack dragging on the asphalt as she headed to her home – a hotel room in a sad dusty city center in southern Idaho…. You think of the kids on the island walking home from school, smiling. If it weren’t for the promise of meeting the kids and bringing some fucking oil pastels to some future creator you would not have been interested in the trip. On the way to the school you remember the oil pastels that you got when you were a kid. They were too beautiful to use. You used to open them just to look and smell them and rearrange the colors. You think of the Idaho girl and how you gave her friend your only copy of Shell Silverstein and you still feel guilty about not having something to give to both girls….
You didn’t know until everything was happening that the people you came to listen to would be such givers…. but, really, you came because of the idea of meeting some kids, giving some art supplies and maybe making some kind of an impact.
As you listen to others in the dark, in the open air by the bar and in the navy light of midnight…. you try to think about how you can open up your body more because maybe it will mean you are more approachable?
You try to think about how your face and body language appears to others. You try to think about how you can smile with your eyes more…A friend confides that someone just told her she has kind eyes and the phrase strikes you as so beautiful it almost breaks your heart. You can tell that she is struggling with it and you tell her that she does have kind eyes…you tell her it’s a super nice thing…. and isn’t that a really wonderful notion as well?
You recognize that you can’t sit still. You remind yourself to wear your metal bracelets more often because they make the most beautiful tinkle of sound when you are bouncing about like a crazy person. The jingles remind you to stop fidgeting. You know it’s probably because you feel uncertain about what to do with yourself when you are away from your baby…. you worry about it – feel the pang of separation.
You think of all the words that came out of your mouth over the past week and then you tell yourself that you should really stop. talking. Not like you are embarrassed, but damn. Wouldn’t silence be awesome? Maybe take a whole day to be silent…. Would that work? Would your two year old understand? Probably not… but it sounds like a really nice concept right at this very moment…..
You think about how you got up early to see the sunrise before the beach became full of bodies. You remember how you let the sun wash over you and you remember how you cried. You felt pathetic, really. Not like a failure but just like really, really stuck……and ashamed.
Who watches your child? It’s a very common question you get – a totally fine question – a question you don’t mind answering…but, then you remember how you squirm when you to tell people that you do indeed live with your parents. You’re 32 and you had to and it’s because you don’t understand money…at all. You stayed way to long at a shitty job that was basically paycheck to paycheck and had shitty hours and lots of negative forces. You stayed because there were HUGE creative rewards…. because you got to do what you wanted and you were able to be really creative. Your body of work from that period is pretty much perfect and you are proud of it…. But starting over is hard. It’s terrifying, actually.
When you finally left you spent most of your savings on a good camera and your favorite lens because sometimes equipment does matter… I mean, it’s not paramount because it’s really your mind, your heart and your ideas that make your work valuable…but…. you felt guilty about the purchase. You work super hard and do a lot of work for free or trade and you are still working hard at doing less for more but you believe there will be a time when it changes. You feel like a jerk because you’re sitting in front of people who have made really good choices about money and you believe they are super stable… You make note not to compare…This is your path, not theirs.
You sit in a small circle with a very calm woman and you think about your future and when she asks you to make a list of goals you see that what you really want for your future is love…and peace and may be it would also be nice to have a house…… specifically an old south-facing building in a shabby small town, your home town…. and you know you’ll paint the walls peacock colors and you’ll have begonias and a rooftop garden where you’ll have big parties with loud music that will bounce off the bricks of the abandoned buildings and maybe the music might even reach the mountain ridge to the east. On the bottom floor, at street level, you’ll have a gallery or something and let random artists show stuff and you’ll have your printing stuff because you want to have a hand in that process. That would be so cool, you think. But, then you start to write out your goals and all you can think of is peace. And all you can think of is how you need to make changes inside in order to make that peace happen. Everything else kind of melts away. You almost cry when you tell the group a small part of this revelation, because again, you are speaking out about the deepest flaws…
Later that night when you’re wandering through the tropical and manicured gardens at the beautiful hotel that you really can’t afford, you jump outside of your body with insane fear when you see a black shadow racing at you. You realize it’s a tourist and you tell yourself to calm the fuck down. But when you return to your room you cry in the bathroom so your roommates can’t see you because you don’t want any pity. You made the choices in your life and you have to live with them…and then you see the nice, calm woman who gave the talk about how she lost her baby … and she was so real and honest…after dinner she stood before you at the bar where the whole group was gathered and she asked about your life. For some reason you tell her everything and she calls you brave.
It’s almost too much to take so you avert your eyes but now the word is circling in your head and you are grateful to her for her observation.
You start to think…what if I am brave?
You start to think about how maybe you could be more brave…and maybe you do complain about living with your parents but, really it’s something that you don’t want to change because at night when you hear noises and you think that he’s in the house you are less afraid because your parents are there with you. On those nights, to be safe, you lock your bedroom door where you share a room with the baby…. you both try to get some sleep but you never sleep the whole night through… ever… because you both wake up in the ink black room… for no reason.
Eventually the baby crawls into bed with you asking, ‘Can I cuddle?’
You never say ‘no’ but you know that if you oblige you will never ever sleep again because he likes to turn sideways and kick… you wonder about when you really will be brave and move on your own… have your own room…sleep through the night.
The group peels off slowly, some you don’t see and some you don’t bid farewell. The next day some are on the plane out with you.
Friend really is a great word, right? And it’s not like you don’t have friends already but you are really grateful for new friends and the opportunity to get to meet like-minded men and women. You spent a week in paradise in a really beautiful resort eating and drinking and listening and talking and you are beyond grateful……and sad…. and happy too. You promise everyone that you’ll keep in touch and you really try not to cry because on the first night and every night after, you were crying like a baby… In fact, you kind of broke a lot of rules you have about drinking during business events… and divulging too much personal information to strangers…………… but, you believe it turned out for the best. Everyone was so open and cool…
Then you feel proud of yourself for not giving in to really bad decisions like… you know… not sleeping with inappropriate people and not talking too much about yourself but really trying to listen and care about others.
Now on the plane, you see the island below. Some friends are still there while others are with you in the air on the same plane or on different planes. It’s a romantic thought. You are super emotional at this point though, so you try not to think of it.
The woman next to you is chatty and it’s annoying at first but toward the end of the flight you push aside your negative attitude. You find out she’s a midwife and you smile. That was your very first photo essay in college. The one that made you really love photography and storytelling…
You tell her that fact and then the conversation flows like a river.
‘Good for you,’ she says. ‘Follow your dreams.’
It’s like a benediction.
She shares ideas then she asks you if you are over the trauma of labor. It takes you back. You are in the hospital and you see the brand new face, the eyes… your baby’s eyes. He didn’t even cry. He just looked right at you and everyone ever since then people have told you that he has the most intense gaze, the most beautiful eyes. He didn’t cry till they took him to the small table and when they did that your body shook like crazy. You couldn’t walk for weeks. Did you recover from the trauma?
She asks if you’ll have another child and your eyes go to a far off place.
‘Oh,’ you say, ‘I’m not sure. I haven’t thought of it… I mean. I wouldn’t want to do it by myself again.’
You turn to the window look out over the yellow cloud valleys and peaks.
The sun is setting on the world.
You think about what you took away….
What if you simply lived your life?
What if you lived your life, pursued your dreams and followed your path without judging others or the fear of the same?
What would you do? What path would you choose if you knew you would not be judged?
This is a cautionary tale…
As we approached the driveway to the Jupiter Hotel, arriving for the start of What If, PDX, he looked at me. “We can’t do this again”, his eyes said. “I know” mine replied.
On the outside it looked perfect, here we were, this creative couple from Canada (I like alliteration) who had a crazy idea to do something different. To start something different. To BE something different.
And it was failing.
We were selling our house to bankroll this dream and nobody knew. PDX was going to be our swan song. We were done.
And then one night it all came out – a bevy of girls in the bathroom of some dive bar in Portland stole the truth from my heart and I laid it all bare. This wasn’t working. I couldn’t do this to my family anymore.
The next morning, a little hungover and embarrassed, the 60 odd people in front of me asked me to do it again. Check that. They didn’t ask, they demanded it of me, of us. They promised to share the burden and make it happen. They believed in us, so intently, we said “yes”.
So we planned, and we built, and we made better choices than before. We created something kind of magic and brought 60 people together in Punta Cana to see it play out.
Magic is an understatement. Incredible is an understatement. In fact, I don’t have the words to describe how it all came together, but it did.
And it was like magic.
So here we are, just a few days from the end of 2013. No firm dates for 2014. No firm location. No confirmed speakers. And the tickets are selling in a way I never thought I would see. The 120 seats we so optimistically hoped for each time are GONE.
Never Give Up. Ever.
Remember when you were a kid and the time came to choose teams for some kind of sporting activity? Unless you were really, really good at sports, that was a nerve wracking experience.
No one wanted to go last.
Everyone was sure they would go last.
I feel that “action” or the “choice to act” is like the kid who gets picked last. Let me explain…
We often pick things, in our lives, that we think will get us a win. Maybe we choose networking, or making lists, or something else we think we’re supposed to do first. Maybe we choose perfection and all that comes with the pursuit of that. We pick the things that keep us busy, the things that make the most noise in our lives (like the kids who jumped up and down shouting “pick me, pick me”) and distract from what really matters.
We look for the easy win…always the easy win.
What if we are overlooking the one thing that can ensure a win? Because we are, you know. We are.
Way back, behind all the other kids (choices) is the one thing you need to win this game. It’s standing in a place that is easily overlooked, a place you can maybe only see from the corner of your eye. All you have to do is turn your head and see it, and once you do, you will not be able to overlook it again: it’s the decision to just freaking do it.
Choose to start.
Choose to act.
Choose to get it done, whatever it is.
That choice is everything you need to win. It is the only thing you need to win, because with that choice, with the decision to get it done, everything else falls into place.
Start. Today. Now.
Make your pick count.
This might sound like the beginnings of a really bad joke, but bear with me:
What is the difference between a wall and a door?
There is no joke here at all, just a hard truth. The only difference between a wall and a door is perception.
See, there are three kinds of people in the world:
- Those who see a wall and go looking for a door
- Those who see a wall and think “That would be a great place for a door”
- Those who see a wall, and decide to make a door.
Turning a wall into a door is easy – it simply requires a decision and some action. Heck you can knock down a wall with your fists and your feet if you so desire.
Ask yourself this: Do you walk through life content with what you see in front of you – the walls and doors built by others – and the path already laid? Or do you walk through life questioning those barriers and openings, wondering why they are there and knowing there is a better, more efficient way through, sure that others will find it? Or do you see barriers as just another challenge to be overcome, knowing that some will be extremely hard and others are merely false walls?
Perception…is it a wall or is it a door?
I hate asking for help. Hate. It. Always have.
Maybe you’re like me – you take on more and more until you finally burst from the impossibility of it all. Does that sound like you?
Maybe you doggedly work through your list, one item at a time, never looking at the totality of what must be done. Then, when you are forced to gauge your progress, the enormity of what is left to do breaks you and you reach for the chocolate, tears streaming down your face.
Maybe, like my yesterday, a bunch of stuff comes at you all at once. None of it is really unmanageable on its own, but added together it is enough to drop you to your knees.
Ask for help.
Yesterday I reached out to friends who have an idea of what I’m working on; Friends who have been part of what I’m trying to build. I shared my fear and my feeling of failure and they rallied me. I was reminded to wear boots to an ass kicking and that when you impact one life, the effects of that are far reaching, like ripples in the water. I was reminded that one person can make a difference, that my shoulders are broad enough and that it’s important to share vulnerability and fear with those around you.
In asking for help you, in fact, help others.
How people view you is very different than who you really are and what you really struggle with, at least it is for most of us. If you only present your best, happiest face to the world, no one can know how hard some days are. You set yourself up with the perception that you are always “ok”. You set yourself up to fail.
On the outside, my life looks pretty good. I know that. And I work hard to bring positivity into the world via my blog entries or twitter and facebook updates. I don’t want to be another source of negativity. But let me tell you this – there is a huge difference between negativity and vulnerability. Negativity is just, well, gross. Vulnerability, on the other hand, humanizes you and reminds others that you too have feelings and challenges and bumps in the road.
In being vulnerable, you become stronger.
When I reached out yesterday, I was reminded of one very important thing – my own struggles and setbacks are encouraging to others. By sharing the occasional (really) bad day and by asking for help, others realize it’s not always easy and it’s ok for them to ask for help in turn. People will reach back to you and offer to share your burden or give such generous words of encouragement you are reduced to tears again, albeit happy and grateful tears.
In sharing my darkest hour, filled with self doubt and the real desire to run far away and hide, I was lifted back up, dusted off, and turned towards the closet to dig out my ass kicking boots.
No one can do it alone. No one.
Ask for help. It’s worth it.
Have you ever sat down and thought about what you want? What you really want?
This is much bigger than what you want for dinner or the kind of house you want to live in or the car you want to drive. This is bigger than money in the bank. This is bigger than the Spice Girls (“I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want..”).
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Ask yourself this – what do you want your great-great-grandchildren to know about you? What legacy do you want to leave? What life do you want to live?
Ask yourself all that. Find the answer. Then do it.
It is never too late to craft the life you want and to change the path you have been on. It’s not easy. It’s not always pretty. But it is always worth it.
Our founder and producer Jen Bebb said it best yesterday: some days are going to suck and sometimes things are going to feel really awful. And then you go to the closet, get your boots, and kick some ass.
Defining want isn’t easy. Defining your want means moving beyond the expectations held for you and by you, of what your life should be. It means massive change for some, while for others its merely a clearer vision of the road ahead. Without knowing what you want, what you really, really want, how can you ever achieve it? Or happiness? Or the knowledge of a job well done? Or a sense of accomplishment?
Those words you see at the top of this post…those were written by Jen. No, her name isn’t on them, but they are her’s. “I don’t want to be popular…I want to make a difference.” From those words, from that declaration that this won’t be easy, from a clear definition of her want all things for her come.
What do you want?