A few weeks before the trip to Oaxaca that my creative partner, Andrea Scher and I had planned, I realized I was nervous. The group would be small – seven of us in total – much smaller than the groups of 17 that Andrea and I usually travel to Mexico. We’d kept it small because we were on a recon mission, and wanted to check the place out before we’d bring a bigger group there.
Andrea was thrilled with fewer people because it meant less pressure to take care of so many folks as they traipsed around Oaxaca.
I was nervous because my 32-year-old second cousin Katie was coming.
Katie is more than great, let me just say that. She stands out in our family of 40 or so people. It’s not just her sometimes blue or lavender hair, which is the envy of all of us. The last time I saw her at a family gathering I think we called the color Mermaid; a silver green and blue, slightly metallic, maybe something yellow in there. She carries it well. She’s an artist, a writer, a sound engineer.
She’s also fairly quiet. Maybe that was it. Maybe that was my nervousness. I’d tried over the last few years to connect with her at parties, chatting her up about her art and what she cared about. She writes a blog called Word Vomit Wednesday, and she’s a really smart writer – writes about culture and her own experiences. But I never felt I got very far with her in those conversations. Sometimes they felt one sided. I wanted us to align as artists. I wanted her to know that I was different too, and that she stood out to me in this large family. I wanted her to see me too.
While our clan is made up of some pretty awesome people, there’s also a subtle message to keep your shit to yourself. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but part of what got passed down was the message that presentation is everything. I can still see the shiny red lips of my grandmother sitting at a party, silently nursing her vodka with a Cheshire Cat smile. She had plenty to bitch about, I suppose. My grandfather could be a handful. He was emotional, a sometimes screamer. He stomped around the house. He was always right. You got the impression that she was a lot smarter than he was, but there was no room for that. Add money and social standing, whispers of infidelity and nervous breakdowns. There was a whole world behind those shiny red lips.
And even though this legacy of shut up and look good was behind us, both Katie and I grew up with a sense that being too different or opening your mouth a little too wide might get you pushed out of the tribe. I don’t know how strongly Katie felt it, but I felt it and I believe my siblings did too. An invisible muzzle.
The truth was, I was afraid to be in an intimate situation with Katie because we hadn’t gone there in our friendship, and I knew that the Wild Writing we’d do as a group every morning, and the deep intimacy of that would expose me to her. I’d be naked with Katie and I didn’t know how she’d react to seeing the actual me, and whether she’d let me see the actual Katie.
It’s funny to say this after 30 years of doing this work and sitting in such intimate circles of women every week. But because Katie was family, and because the roots of the family perfectionism and looking good was still well felt in me, I was afraid.
It didn’t help my fear, my need to impress upon her that I was an actual someone, and a shining star, that there was no place in the hotel to hold our daily Wild Writing sessions except in the intimacy of the hotel room I shared with Andrea, complete with our crumpled bed sheets and our shit stashed in corners around the room.
“Oh good,” Katie said, when I told her we’d be gathering on the bed. “That sounds so cozy.”
And so there we sat, all seven of us, including my 82-year-old mother, Suzy, and my 24-year-old daughter Ruby, some of us sitting shoulder to shoulder on the bed under blankets, others in chairs, their feet propped up on the bed.
And then we let it all fly. That’s what the Wild Writing does. Every single time. It says, “drop your shit, honey. Take off your mask. Say it straight. Come clean.” And because I try to practice what I preach, and because that’s the way I teach, I did. Everyone did. Katie too. And something about that. Something about having three generations of my sometimes muzzled family sitting in a hotel room dropping the things that they carry, the things they’re afraid to share, the things they fear might cast them out of the tribe, doing that together, was worth the whole trip.
I don’t remember what I wrote over those five days. Probably the ongoing hallucination with my body and the challenge to surrender how I appear to others, the vulnerability of accepting my aging face, what it’s like to love a man in an open marriage, work and identity and fears around stepping back.
What I learned about Katie was that she wasn’t exactly shy. She was more anxious if anything. Not always sure how to show up or connect. Not always sure if it was safe to be herself. Just like me.
And something big happened for Katie through the writing – which I learned when I read the blog post she wrote after her trip – and which I will link to below. She said it was the first time in her life that she actually felt brave. That that might not have happened if I’d kept things safe and had not been willing to show up and create a space that was as vulnerable and real as Wild Writing can be. Her words were confirmation that I too need to continue to be brave myself to bring this work out.
In doing the Wild Writing, I surrendered my need for Katie to see me as someone important – the way I’m sure I always, even if it’s unconscious, want my family to see me; someone successful, thriving, a winner. I just showed up as me… which is at the heart of what Andrea and I mean to do with people – create a week where people can drop the pretense and show up as themselves. Like a party where everyone takes off their mask. Those masks creep up on you, you don’t even know you’re wearing one until you realize you’re afraid, like I was, to let yourself be truly seen.
It goes against everything Katie and I were taught in our family, but apparently we’re changing that, word by word.
Here’s Katie’s blog post and her website. Please read it. It’s stunning, absolutely beautiful.
Photo credit: Ben Zank
Are you interested in learning how to become a creative leader in your community and create these life changing circles? The Wild Writing Teacher Training begins again in January 2020. I’ll be taking 10 people on a five-month journey to become Wild Writing teachers. There’s a call Tuesday October 22 at 1 pacific on Zoom, and you’re welcome to come.
Otherwise, learn more here. Early bird special ends December 1.
Would you like to come to magical San Miguel de Allende with me and Andrea Scher and a group of like minded souls? We write, we take photos, we eat beautiful food and we get lost in the town. We love these trips and we’ve got one coming up in January. What an awesome New Years gift to yourself. Join us.