Write Thinking

A writer writing

by Nancy Colasurdo on September 30, 2013

You know what’s kind of dreamy for a writer (read: me)? The right outlet. You know what’s even dreamier? Several of those.

It occurred to me today, just today, that I have manifested something I’ve been saying I want. It’s options within my writing. It’s kind of like, “here’s what I have to say today — now where can I put it?” I confess that I never thought it would look like this.

Come on into my head for a moment if you dare. I’m walking down the street or strolling through a store or conversing with a friend and I get an idea. It develops and I want to write about it. But where? Privately in my notebook? On my Unfettered 50 site? Here? In my book? Or in one of the two blogs I’ve been contracted to write — Day Brake and Live Riveted (link to come)?

This is pretty amazing. Because, well, writers write. We ideally write about what moves us. And every single outlet I mentioned above moves the heck out of me. I keep saying I’m never going to retire because I’m never going to stop writing. I am so clear that my No. 1 focus is to live my life and chronicle it. And that it is my livelihood.

The Universe is listening.

A moment in my day that makes me nod and acknowledge myself for something will probably become a post for A Day Well Lived. Something that deepens my understanding of me as a writer and/or coach will likely be expressed here. Essays that are cultural, weighty, controversial, serious or imparting advice go to Unfettered 50. Others’ stories of living in the now on their own terms are a fit for Live Riveted. The book and all subsequent books are for stories and topics that require length and exploration in a deeper context. My notebook, well, that’s mostly a place to sort out everything before it gets to any of the aforementioned outlets.

It all fits. It ALL fits.

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Checking back in

by Nancy Colasurdo on September 24, 2013

It’s been a long time since I wrote here. Part of the reason is the launch of my new blog venture, Unfettered50.com. But there’s more.

I’ve been giving serious thought to what I want to convey here that separates it from Unfettered 50. I love this site. It has been my go-to for years. And earlier this year it became the home of Game Plan (formerly at FoxBusiness.com) when I wasn’t quite ready to let it go. I dig the bookshelves and the sections that share who I am as a professional coach.

Which brings me to what’s happening in that area of my life. I’ve been noticing a pattern lately, from clients to friends to casual inquiries — I spend a lot of time helping people tell and even understand their own stories. Here’s what is now written on my revised ‘About’ page:

” … [Nancy] wants you to understand and be able to convey what is compelling about your story. How do your unique experiences and interests make you a standout job candidate, entrepreneur or employer? What is it about your particular background and world view that sets you apart? How do your skills translate to a whole new career path? Nancy will extract your story from you in ways that will make your interviews and correspondence more powerful because you will be more clear about your life narrative.”

This means crystallizing it so that you can slip it into your LinkedIn profile, include pieces of it in your cover letters or have it at the ready when you’re on a job interview.

I didn’t set out to tell stories when I became a coach, but after a decade of working with creative and ambitious clients I have come to realize it is at the heart of the whole operation. And it’s amazing when it all clicks in.

Meanwhile, I am also sharing bits from my own story in weekly posts at A Day Well Lived (Day Brake archived here) and another outlet for storytelling is in the works. Stay tuned for more info on that.

And by all means, if you think I can assist you in bringing clarity to your story, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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On Affecting Lives

by Nancy Colasurdo on July 30, 2013

I recently received a wonderful piece of mail that said this, “Your perspective is unique in the way it resonates and God has put you in this place at this time to change and affect lives.”

This reader went on to share a story about his health and he had written to cheer me on in my efforts regarding my recent blog post Life in the Hypertensive Zone. His issues with cholesterol were similar to mine with blood pressure.

This kindness from a stranger reminded me of several things about life. One, it is hard to keep track of all the people we might be touching, especially if we’re writers in this age of the world wide web. My goodness, what a privilege to have someone tell me I’m affecting lives.

Two, our stories are important because even though sometimes we feel like we’re telling them and no one is listening or caring, they are. They’re listening with rapt attention. They’re caring enough to write and share their own stories. That kind of connection is such a big part of why I do this.

I suppose that’s also why I’m moved to share that I’m in a major state of flux right now. It is filled with big ideas, endless possibility, uncertainty, lean living, physical pain, surges of confidence, groundedness, much introspection and mad bouts of writing. This is a summer of sequestration of sorts. I have no feeling of deprivation around that. It feels peaceful and I’m vicariously enjoying others’ getaways and such via social media.

Sometimes when I ask my life coaching clients what they’re willing to do (sacrifice?) to have that thing they say they want, this is kind of what I mean. I’m one who’s willing to hunker down and say no to dining out and skip a vacation if it means I can make my next vision come to fruition. There is something so primal and cool about scaling way back. The simplest pleasures take front and center. No, I can’t make that dinner at that trendy restaurant, but how about a walk? We can catch up that way.

I see it as temporary. I used to see it as a terrifying failure, a reason to beat myself up for falling short somehow. Now I’m unsure of how this is all going to go, but there’s an underlying joy and purpose and a certainty that it will all work out. In fact, more than work out. Hard to explain, but clearly all the work on self I’ve done up to now is rising to the surface. And this is part of the ebb and flow of being a writer who actually takes the gift seriously.

In the very near future I will be unveiling Unfettered50.com, a venture (website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) born of a feeling I had last year when I was new to hitting age 50. I’m so excited about it and have been pouring lots of energy and time into making it shine. Simultaneously, I have clarified some questions I had around a book I’ve been writing that was dormant for a long time and I’m now working on it voraciously. That baby is ready to be born. It wants out.

It’s a special kind of challenge to create on different levels and that’s new to me. Blogging here, generating content for Unfettered50.com and writing for A Day Well Lived on current topics. Going deep into a memoir manuscript that spans a decade I’ve already lived to chronicle past experiences. In an interesting twist, as I’m rereading my own chapters I’m finding it valuable to apply those lessons learned to my life now. What a kick.

In between the writing moments, I’m getting immense satisfaction from clients who are clearing clutter – physical and emotional — to let in new possibilities, revamping resumes to invite new opportunities, proudly honoring their own creativity and working through loss to make life-altering decisions. It’s heady when I actually pause to appreciate it.

In a previous post I spoke of talking to a woman in my community who suggested I learn more about Paul the Apostle. I have borrowed books and even watched a film on him since she gave me that nudge. Last week I watched a documentary about Buddha on PBS and a theme emerged. These men – Paul and Siddhartha — forged their own path, spread their message with little care about mainstream reaction. They did what they were compelled to do – learn, keep the faith, teach.

That feels very right in the life of this coach/writer. I’m so glad I’ve learned to pay attention when others make suggestions and when my gut directs me to something. I get to learn and share and maybe affect some lives.

I’m all in.

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My gratifying gig

by Nancy Colasurdo on July 16, 2013

A few weeks ago I informed my readers here that I’d be writing a new weekly post called Day Brake for A Day Well Lived. The site and newsletter will launch soon, but in the meantime you can find Day Brake on its (public) Facebook page.

What I am finding joyful in the process of contributing original content to ADWL is that it serves two purposes — I get to pause and reflect on what makes a particular day ‘well lived’ and I get the opportunity to share any insights I have around that. You will find these posts anecdotal and reflective but also conversational.

At this point ADWL‘s Facebook page has eclipsed the 150,000 followers mark, a credit to its founder/creator Todd Lieman, and it is beyond exciting to speak to such a wide and diverse readership. We’d love it if you’d take the journey with us.

Here are Day Brake posts No. 2 and 3:

‘Only’ Appreciation (Thoughts on abundance …)

Appreciative Energy (Applying energy to showing appreciation …)

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The debut of ‘Day Brake’

by Nancy Colasurdo on July 6, 2013

I’m thrilled to be contributing meaningful content to a new venture called A Day Well Lived. My first piece called “Good Grief” was published on its Facebook page last week and Day Brake posts will continue weekly, eventually on its website and in its newsletter.

As the site-in-progress says, A Day Well Lived is “a celebration of the events, people and experiences that, upon reflection, allow us to feel like we ‘did the day right.’ It’s a great feeling.”

Take a look at the Facebook page and ‘like’ it if you’re so inclined, sign up so you’ll know when the site launches and get in there and let us know what you think. It’s a wonderful way to be present in your life, seeing something of value in each day.

I am so gratified by the opportunity to write about topics/events/insights that jazz me and this project is right in my wheelhouse. And there’s more to come. I hope you’ll stay tuned and come along for the ride.

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Not the Paula Deen Rant You Might Expect

by Nancy Colasurdo on June 27, 2013

If somebody asked me (in a deposition or in a confessional with the Pope or otherwise) if I have ever said the word “fuck” I might say something like, “Of course.”

Underlying it and unspoken might also be, “I’m from Jersey. Doesn’t everybody?”

So when I read that in a deposition Paula Deen answered “Of course” when asked that question about the ‘N’ word, I took it to mean something similar. That just makes sense. “Of course” has a completely different tone and meaning from, say, a sheepish “Yes, sometimes” or “I used to until I realized how awful it was.” By contrast, a completely racist person who had no regrets about saying it but thought her livelihood might be in jeopardy would likely go the route of flat-out lie and give an emphatic “Absolutely not.”

Deen didn’t do that. She gave the answer of someone who has had some exposure to the word (I’m not about to speculate how much) and feels it has its rightful place in some contexts. I think the last week or so has been enlightening for her because she may now see that actually lots of people think it has no place, anywhere, and some of those people employ her.

I was disappointed to see Deen in damage control mode with Matt Lauer. I was. There was ‘handler’ speak happening and when she went off script and became genuine it showed.

But I’ll tell you what I find infinitely more disappointing than anything Deen has ever done in her lifetime – the reactions to this whole thing. I am so over all the people who have slapped on judge robes or shrugged like ‘What’s the big deal?’ or started the tired conversation about hip hop artists using the ‘N’ word. Who cares? Why does that make you want to use it? Why oh why would anyone want societal permission to say it?

You know, there is gray area here. I can think Food Network did the right thing by ending Deen’s contract (people lose gigs all the time – that’s life) and still be sad for Deen. She’s a fellow human being. How do we seem to lose sight of that so easily? Is it the ability to express knee-jerk thoughts on the Internet?

I can disagree with virtually everything Sarah Palin says and still feel empathy when I see the poignant scene in Game Change where she is dealing with being in over her head as a vice presidential candidate, wondering about the safety of her deployed son and taking care of a special needs child. We are fellow humans, for goodness sake.

I can’t be that cut and dry. I would have few people in my life if I started phasing out the people who have biases. I have been publicly beating the drum against homophobia, racism and sexism since the late 1980s, but I’m not so deluded to believe I’m free of biases myself. Come on.

And what is with the nastiness around Deen’s love of butter? This crazy nation is filled with people anesthetizing themselves on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, bad TV and sex, so really, are we going to pile on those who use food to numb out? I know about Deen’s whole diabetes issue and it was poorly handled. But I’m talking about this Judgey Judgerson thing going on so people can feel righteous.

Instead of showing our superiority by mocking those less disciplined than us (have you tasted butter?), maybe instead we could use that energy to go rescue an animal from a shelter, lend a hand to an elderly neighbor or tell someone we love them. If we’re passionate about obesity and nutrition issues we can do any number of constructive things to help the cause, as First Lady Michelle Obama has been doing.

Let’s get off the high horse. The perspective up there is skewed and it makes us scoldy and condescending. Change doesn’t happen in that place. And if we’re going to continue to evolve past hundreds of years of slavery and subservience it isn’t going to come from piling on one person who seems to be stuck somewhere between generations in her world view.

Paula Deen has some thinking to do. Let’s leave her to it, shall we?

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A window on my people

by Nancy Colasurdo on June 24, 2013

I never met James Gandolfini, but I am intimately acquainted with some of his art. I’m not sure if I quite understood how profoundly it touched me until I found out about his recent passing.

I’m an Italian-American from New Jersey. I’m not related to any mobsters, at least that I know of. I’m not fond of violence, in real life or in my entertainment. I’m often not thrilled with how we are portrayed in television, books and movies.

Among the clips I’ve watched since Gandolfini died was his appearance on The Actor’s Studio. He talked about how the violence bothered him, too. He talked about the Meisner technique and how he used it to effect when he knew he had a violent scene coming up. When asked, as host James Lipton always does, what profession he’d like to try other than acting he said “environmental lawyer.” When asked what he’d never want to be he said “oilman.”

Fascinating. The man, not the character.

But here’s the thing about the character. Tony Soprano’s interactions were a window into the Italian-American culture. I was well into my 30s when I realized my ethnicity was very different from so many. I suppose that makes me pretty sheltered, but it’s true. Much of that difference was about how Italian-Americans approach and view education.

While taking a creative writing tutorial at the Universityof Michigan– where I spent two semesters on a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship in 1996-97 – my instructor introduced me to The Dream Book edited by Helen Barolini. The introduction changed my life, particularly lines like this about my culture:

“Learning gave one ideas, made one different; all the family wanted was cohesion,” Barolini writes.

Because, yes, when I announced I was going to college in 1979 my grandmother cried “why, why, why?” and my father said it would “give me ideas.” Those exact words. Said with derision. People who are not Italian – OK, actually Nia Vardalos touches on this perfectly in a scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding – often don’t really understand how good people you love could find education threatening. It’s because they fear you’ll learn so much you’ll leave the fold, so to speak.

While watching The Sopranos, this mindset was ever present. Take Tony talking to his therapist, Dr. Melfi. In one scene she explains existentialism. This comes about because Tony is upset that his young son, A.J., has been learning Nietzsche (pronounced “Nitch” by A.J.) in school. He questions whether God exists. The conversation between A.J. and his parents (Tony and Carmela, played by Edie Falco) must seem nonsensical to people who come from more typical educated backgrounds. In the scene, parents essentially yell at their child for critical thinking and questioning and demand to know what teacher taught him these things.

All I could think of when I saw that scene was a similar conversation I had with my mother when I was in seventh grade. I attended Catholic school and one day I came home and told her that Mrs. DiGiuseppe said that some people think John F. Kennedy isn’t really dead. “What?” my mother yelled, “What are you talking about? His brain matter was all over his wife’s lap. Of course he’s dead. What are they teaching you at that school?”

Through Tony, creator David Chase explored how Italian-Americans relate to each other. Tony and Carmela’s marriage had its dicey moments, but the bond was clearly about family, tradition, loyalty. There was very little questioning of what they were taught by their elders. By contrast, their children, Meadow and A.J., questioned everything.

The threatened elders are ultimately proud when the children succeed, but the road can be bumpy. I know of what I speak. Feeling like you’re being disobedient or disrespectful because you’re learning is unsettling. That’s why Barolini’s words quoted above hit me so powerfully. It was just a few years after I read her book that HBO brought us The Sopranos and suddenly the world could see that dynamic I had only just begun to understand.

When the series first came on I resisted watching it because I assumed I’d be seeing the annoying stereotypes. A few people in my life wore me down, though, and I soon became hooked. The overbearing, depressed mother. The dutiful but conflicted wife. So much martyrdom. The interaction of criminals over heaping plates of macaroni. For that matter, the appetites extending to sex. Flaring tempers. Insecure entitlement. The brooding. The lively celebrations. The imprecise language. The vicious language. The triangulating. The suppressed creativity. It’s all part of what makes us who we are.

But we are also a gorgeously irresistible people in our passions. Italian-Americans feel deeply and love hard. If it is human nature that we all like to be understood, James Gandolfini’s acting gift provided a lens into my people via Tony Soprano.

I never met Mr. Gandolfini, but what he brought into my living room on many Sunday nights was real and I am profoundly grateful for that.

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In Defense of Cancer (in Plays)

by Nancy Colasurdo on May 25, 2013

(Nancy’s Note: Happy to give some space in this blog to a guest columnist and writer I greatly respect.)

By Charles Evered

Could there be a more absurd situation in life than sitting across from a friend at a coffee shop and finding oneself defending the very disease that has killed your father, your mother, your two brothers, your mentor, your dearest friend from graduate school — not to mention many other acquaintances, pets, people whom I admire greatly from a distance, and the disease that — if you were to see it through the eyes of a genetics expert or insurance actuary, would probably be deemed the most likely cause of your own death?

And yet, there I found myself, between sips of a grande mocha advocating diligently on its behalf, lobbying for the continued relevance of that age old chestnut — the seemingly out of vogue “cancer play.”

“Find another disease,” my friend pleaded. “Anything but cancer.”

So, as I looked off into the far distance, considering the groundbreaking possibilities of the first rickets or scurvy play, it became clear to me that if social security were the third rail of American politics, so it seems that cancer may be the third rail of American theatrics. It’s just not prudent to go there if you can help it. And if you do, you better somehow deconstruct it, be ironic, clinical, distant, cold or write through a prism of bemused “graduate school like” detachment if you want the play to be taken seriously.

The problem in my case however, was twofold: 1) I had written a play called Class, about the relationship between a jaded acting teacher and his mysterious new student — that isn’t really a “cancer play” at all. It’s a play about how two very different people find a commonality and change each other’s lives forever. At best, cancer makes a glancing but still potent cameo. And 2) while I’d like to think I can write outside of my own experience, and have, I don’t quite understand why I should have to insert another disease in the story in order to protect myself from what others feel is a subject begging for a critical drubbing or no longer worthy of theatrical dramatization. After all, by writing the play, I have done what everyone always tells writers to do: “Write what you know.” In this case, something I know too well — and way more than I would have liked thank you very much. It’s also something that way too many people still know — and are waging an expensive and very courageous battle against on a daily basis.

Still, within the context of the play, and in real life, the disease, represents the most frightening thing of all: chaos — utter “unpredictable unpredictability” that, at any moment, can take everything away. No matter how rich, successful, careful, vegan, famous or happy you are, it is still the Russian roulette of diseases, and while we can certainly do all we can to prevent it — and fight it, and while science is making real strides in managing and even eradicating it, (Go Angelina!) — the bottom line is — it still remains that “invisible bus” that we can’t see coming around the corner. And so, in a rather perverse and sinister way, it remains a great “leveler,” as the same disease that killed a youngish billionaire like Steve Jobs, can kill the poorest among us. It just doesn’t care.

In Class, I deal with some of those themes — taking care even, to address those very issues head on.

In previous productions of the play, it’s been both heartening and surreal to have people who are fighting cancer — and many who have conquered it — come up to me afterwards and “thank” me for representing their disease in a way that to them, feels refreshingly honest. They even seem strangely appreciative that the subject is brought up at all, without ironic distance, not in the context of a movie of the week, and no longer consigned to the theatrical ghetto of the dreaded “issue” play.

I would of course like nothing more than for the subject to become entirely irrelevant, and I hope someday it is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a hundred years from now, audiences watched plays that mentioned cancer and regarded it with a curious detachment, as they might today when watching a play about an eradicated Victorian era disease? I would love nothing more. Until that time however, I’m afraid I’m still obligated to write what I know — while at the same time, hoping never to get to know it any better than I already have.

Charles Evered’s play CLASS is now playing at the Penguin Repertory Theater in Stony Point, New York until June 9. It was published by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. For information: www.penquinrep.org. For more information about Mr. Evered: www.CharlesEvered.com.

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Way to represent, Rosie

by Nancy Colasurdo on May 3, 2013

GAME PLAN:

I’ve never watched the Kentucky Derby. Never paid much attention to it, really.

But it’s a safe bet I’ll be watching this one because I’ll be cheering on jockey Rosie Napravnik.

It makes me feel a little predictable, rooting for someone mostly based on gender and, well, the fact that she is a fellow Jersey Girl. But I can’t help myself. This stuff lights me up.

Photo by Tsutomu Takasu

Sometimes when I look back on about 15 years of covering mostly women’s sports earlier in my career, I wonder if I wasn’t partly drawn to people doing something I was never comfortable even trying. I was lucky to get a ‘C’ in gym class. So completely uncomfortable in my own skin.

Then, there I was, day after day on fields and in arenas watching female athletes run, jump, pass, block, spin, shoot, bat, field. It never got old. I never looked at it as an opportunity to be inspired every day, but in retrospect I’m sure that was a big part of the allure. Those young women were teaching me about sweat and competition and trying harder next time.

Since my job was to chronicle their experiences, the more I let in, the better. The deeper I felt the disappointment or the elation, the better the story would be. People wanted me covering their events because they knew I got something that went beneath the score and stats. I picked up the undercurrent, the joy of the player coming back from injury, not just the fact of it.

And covering female athletes almost always had the feeling of underdog. The fields were often not as nicely groomed as the ones the boys played on. The funding was less. The attention they received frequently paled in comparison to their brothers in the same school. They didn’t whine; they played. And back then, their brothers were starting to see that, hey, my sister puts in just as many hours as I do. The boys were starting to get it.

It was an exciting stretch to be writing about pivotal times for girls, filling their scrapbooks with clippings (yes, paper ones) and even occasionally speaking at their banquets. They were so grateful.

These days I pay little attention to sports, but 60 Minutes just did a piece on Napravnik and I liked how she came across – direct, confident, smart. Those qualities are not hard to find in Jersey women – damn right – and as I watched I felt represented. Yeah, Rosie. Let’s see what ya got, baby.

When she was relating to Bob Simon some of the finer points of communicating with horses and she said they responded to a “smooching” sound to burst forward, he asked her to make the sound.

“I’m not going to make that noise on 60 Minutes,” Napravnik said.

Translation, Bob: Yeah, right, with all that I’ve got to prove and with all I’ve accomplished so far to earn respect, I’m going to dish up a clip that can be spliced and diced into some sicko sexual montage on the Internet. Didn’t I mention I’m from Jersey, Bob? I’m wise to that. But nice try.

Not to make Simon sound depraved. It was done in fun. And to his credit the moment really captured Napravnik’s personality. She’s getting in there again. Storied Churchill Downs awaits. Last year she won the Kentucky Oaks on a horse named ‘Believe You Can.’ Could a life coach even make that up?

This reminds me of turning on the Masters for the first time in 1997 just to see what this sensation Tiger Woods was going to do. He cruised at Augusta and made history. It also brings to mind the few NBA games I saw last year because a little thing called Linsanity was happening courtesy of Jeremy Lin.

Every so often it’s nice to see someone ‘different’ emerge on the scene and take a sport by storm. You know there are already girls who want to be Rosie Napravnik. She’s taken them closer to believing it’s possible.

Heck, a bunch of us adults are paying big attention, not because we want to be jockeys but because we want to be something that we’ve been told we can’t or shouldn’t be. These people who just shrug off the naysayers and keep going, who get injured and heal and get back out there, we happily go on a little ride with them. Even it only comes in the form of screaming at the TV and raising our arms in the air.

Victory is sweet.

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Traveling to a Place of Expansiveness

by Nancy Colasurdo on April 21, 2013

GAME PLAN:

There are books I read and there are books I devour. And sometimes I am so called to read a certain something that I break my steadfast rule of not finishing the book I’ve already started to dive in to the new one.

Enter Learning to Breathe by photojournalist Alison Wright. It’s not every day I read a book with a foreword by the Dalai Lama and it’s definitely not every day I am riveted to a café chair, my bed, another café seat and then my couch because I don’t want to put it down.

I found the overarching reason I was supposed to read this book at this particular time in my life in the afterword:

“The pain I have faced has helped me relate to the hardships of others,” Wright writes. “I realize now it’s not about chasing the story. It’s about being part of the story.”

We’ll return to the pain and this message. But let me back up a little.

Yesterday I attended an event called the New York Travel Festival at Bohemian National Hall and, while trekking from Hoboken to the Upper East Side for a 9 a.m. talk isn’t my ideal way to start a Saturday (or any day, for that matter), I felt compelled to go. A Facebook friend had posted the gathering just a few days before and it immediately grabbed my attention. I’m not sure why as I’m not a travel writer nor much of a reader of travel writing, but I think it had something to do with having just written about the three goals I’m currently focused on, one of them being “Travel more.”

First I took in a talk by Andrew Evans, Digital Nomad for NationalGeographic.com. It was supposed to be about why bucket lists “suck” and while he did touch on that, he had decided to switch it up to ‘travel and terror’ given the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Equipped with accompanying images, he blended the two topics meaningfully.

I loved his story of being on a commercial flight that had to make an emergency landing in Memphis. As people grumbled instead of being grateful to be alive and then grumbled some more when they headed for room service in the Holiday Inn lodging the airline had provided them, Evans and another guy set out for some barbecue in a joint where they watched the Auburn game. Since it was a 24-hour delay, the next day Evans decided to take in a place he’d never had a desire to see – Graceland. He had no particular interest in Elvis and so Graceland would not have been on his bucket list had he created one, but he enjoyed the visit and became fascinated with the iconic performer.

Be open to what presents itself. Got it.

Evans (a.k.a. Where’s Andrew?) then showed a shot of a beautiful home with lovely landscaped grounds and told us it was Joseph Stalin’s vacation home – used four times. Because, he continued, what do dictators want to curb most when growing and retaining their power over citizens? Education and travel. Those things that most open us up to other cultures, other possibilities. And the dictators themselves don’t move around much, as was clearly the case with Osama bin Laden.

If Evans got me thinking about expansiveness, then Alison Wright came on stage next and emblazoned the concept on my brain. It was like he had made me look up and she was sky writing it with an exclamation point on the end. Your thinking needs to be more expansive, Nancy. Expand your idea of what your gifts can do, Nancy.

Wright is so beyond what we think of as a photojournalist. What she’s willing to do to make searing, storied photographs … well, it’s nothing short of courageous. At first, though, all I saw was a woman about my age (as it turns out, she’s six days older than me) showing her audience dazzling photographs and talking about how she got into her profession.

But even calling it a profession in her case seems off. It’s a calling, a way of life that sets her on fire as she roams countries, sometimes showing up with nothing but her camera bag and one clean shirt, to document lives. When Wright got to the story of being in a severe bus accident in Laos and having a broken back, tailbone and pelvis, damage to her organs including collapsed lungs, and glass and metal embedded up and down her arm, I kept looking to see if there were any signs of this on her now. I saw none.

Doctors, one after another, were astounded she survived. Her journey from the remote area where the accident occurred to her home in San Francisco and all she endured in between is poured out in the book I simply had to purchase after her talk. She includes flashbacks in it, delightful stories of places and people and even meeting the Dalai Lama in 1987 before most knew who he was (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989).

Woven through is Wright’s meditation practice and her spiritual approach to all she does. It was pivotal for her recovery that she change doctors at one point, preferring to hear what she could do moving forward, not what she couldn’t. When she explained that she was determined to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, she was looking for support instead of discouragement. And, make no mistake about it, she did achieve that goal.

When I introduced myself to Wright after her talk I thanked her for being inspiring. In the inscription she wrote in my book, she called me a kindred spirit. And while it was lovely in the moment, I thought of how she is unfazed by worms in her body and I’m a shrieking fool if a spider skitters across my window sill. But then later, I felt a connection to her on a deeper level when I read a specific part of her book. She recounts having met Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, in France in 1999; she was there to attend the retreat and photograph him. She writes:

“He explained that with air, water, and even love, we are different from one moment to the next. To have children or produce a book is output. You are giving something of yourself to be absorbed by others. You don’t have to die to be reborn. You can offer yourself to others through your insight, and your care. You can offer your heart. ‘And in that way you will live on and be remembered,’ he told me.”

I understand an independent woman living on her terms, passionately chronicling her life as legacy. I do.

We are indeed part of the story.

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