11/30/2018 – On Effort Over Output

I need some new metrics to use to measure my progress. The PTA gig has taught me that my Inner Critic has a near limitless capacity to rip me to shreds with whisperings about how I haven’t done enough, what a lazy lout I am to think that I can close my inbox for the day or attend to other areas of my life. I’m drowning in my own outsized expectations. More fundraising! More restructuring of the organization! More community building! More time in the classroom! He mentioned that he would like me to do this and she mentioned that she needs me to do that and all that in addition to the ever-growing list of things I want to accomplish in every area of my life.

Boundaries, yes. I need firmer lines drawn and more of them. But I’ve also been thinking about the difference between measuring my progress based on effort versus output. How much sleep am I willing to lose for this volunteer effort? Little to none. Do outside forces want me to give more than I already am? Always. I’ve had weeks where I thought about and worked at my PTA tasks from the moment I get up, through my kids eating dinner and taking baths and reading stories, through late into the night, and I go to sleep feeling like shit because progress is slow and I still don’t feel like I’m giving enough.

But that’s because my metric for self-measurement has been based on task completion. When I mark things as done, that’s when I feel good… for about 10 minutes and then generally the pressure mounts around the next thing.

I can give more, I can sleep less, I can shut down other areas of my life in order to give more. GIVE MORE MOAR MOOOREEEEE. Or I can decide to adjust my measurement to focus on effort instead of output. How many hours am I willing to give this week? And the next. And the next. If I reach the end of the week and I’ve given the allotted time but there’s still work to be done that means we either need to adjust our expectations re: how much we’re able to accomplish and on what timeline *or* we need more volunteers. (It’s usually, generally, pretty-much always the latter.)

Effort. That’s how I need to measure my progress from now on.

11/16/2018 – On Trying Again. And Again. And Again.

My Jenna Cole photography website is down, has been for several weeks now and I’m struggling to find the motivation to get it back up again. Thanks to our many relocations, and a few course corrections, this will be the 7th time I’ve put myself out there in this way and said “I’m really doing this. I’m making the photography business a priority and I’m going to do the work build it into something more than it is today.”

Last week my cousin asked if would be too much of a bother for me to do family photos for them. Family photos? One of the few things in life that consistently feeds my soul in exactly the way I need and that I would do every weekend if I could? Would that be too much for her to ask???

She wasn’t using the word bother because she wanted me to do it for free, she used it because she didn’t know I’m “doing this” anymore and thought it might be an imposition. She didn’t know I look out my front window on a regular basis and think “I wish I had someone to photograph in this light.” I found this exchange to be a bit embarrassing (no one is going to buy a biz marketing course from me anytime soon), informative, and a little bit inspiring. Even though I have a handful of repeat clients there’s always some voice in my head telling me I’m not being booked because no one except me finds any value in my work (in that case I should just document my life and pursue personal projects, no need to spend all the time building a website from scratch). But that cousin of mine shifted my inner dialog a bit because I have evidence now, for at least one person, that what I’m facing down is in some way as simple as marketing better.

And yet, I’ve drafted no plans and made little efforts. Because I’m embarrassed. Or conflicted. Or confused. A tangle of emotions that can summed up with the question “Is this optimism+persistence or naivete+failure?” At what point are the website rebrands and the marketing blitzes and the promotional offerings a joke everyone is in on except me?

Or is this just what it is? It’s trying, and trying again. It’s Edison and his light bulbs. It’s every children’s book you’ve ever read about kids who try and try and try and then they flew. It’s drowning out the voices, internal and external, that laugh at our efforts and revel in our disappointments.

I’ll forever be a pessimistic pragmatist about the photography industry today. The consumer and smartphones cameras are so good now that the pool of opportunities will forever be reduced. Not as many people need or want what I have to offer. But there is plenty of evidence that there is something there for me if I’m willing to put in the work.

I just have to try. Again.

10/14/2018 – On Knowing Truth

T1 was telling me about a bully he faced down at summer camp. The bully was harassing another boy for picking his nose and proclaimed that the boy would never find love because of his 8-year-old hygiene habits.

As he was retelling the story T1 told me “I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make the bully stop, but now I would tell him that he’s wrong. It isn’t true that you won’t find love if you pick your nose because when we were in California I picked my nose and Mia loved me. Mia loved me and so I know that isn’t true.”

What a moment to be able to witness in my child! That mindset will serve him his entire life if he can hold on to it. The first of Byron Katie’s Four Questions is “Is It True?” Is it true that I will never find love if I pick my nose and eat it when I’m 6-years-old? Of course not! Is it true that my husband “never” or that my mother “always”? No! Right Now hasn’t done anything to deserve a promotion to Always or Forever.

When I am struggling it is often because I have flattened down the moment. I’m not living in the present, I’m living without depth. Yet when I remember to ask “Is it True?” the answer almost always is a firm “No!” It might feel true, I might want it to be true to fit a certain worldview, someone might want me to think it’s true for their own purposes, but none of these things are immutable and often they aren’t very dependable or reliable either.

I hope T1 will continue to ask himself this question over the years, it’s a very powerful tool. And when he’s kicking around those dark depths that makes us humans question what we know to be true, there is one Is It True that can act as his anchor. “Is It True that I have people in my life who want me to find peace and fulfillment and joy, who see me for everything that I am and love me truly?” The answer to Is It True is often a no, but in this case, T1, I want you to know the answer is a resounding, immutable, yes. I love you, I see you, I believe in you. <3

10/11/2018 – On 10 Years of Marriage

The irony is, if given the chance, and a time machine, neither of us would choose the other if we could go back and do it again. Somewhere deep in our psyche we’re still holding on to the idea that there’s a better fit, a right fit. Not a soulmate, but someone who better meets our individual needs. A part of our brains whispering “This could be be improved, but not with him/her. Tear it all down and start over with a different model and see how that feels.”

The relationship isn’t everything, but it is enough. And that’s different from settling. I am not resigned. I am determined. I am resolute.

We tried marriage counseling for the first time this summer and the first thing she asked us was what we want to get out of therapy. My answer was immediate, no pondering necessary: I want to see this relationship through until the end. Whether that’s the end of our lives I’m not so sure, I have no illusions about what the future holds. But even when I’ve known that it’s not working, at all, I’ve also known that it could work. There’s just enough raw material there for us to reset and reshape and try again.

What will I write after another 10 years? There isn’t a lot of romance in this missive. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between the Jenna from a decade ago and the Jenna typing this out now. I’m missing that magical combination of hormones that cast a warm, rosy glow over the entire endeavor. I still want it though, and that’s what’s important. I want to get up each day and try again, try to do and be better for him and with him.

There is romance in the relationship though. What I’ve written here isn’t entirely fair, to either of us. It doesn’t look like flowers or diamond earrings or giggling a lot or constantly touching each other. Some of the work of marriage is the effort required to allow the positive manifestations of the relationship to morph over time, and to notice and appreciate the new ways romance is expressed. When we stand in the kitchen late at night, laughing and sharing about our day. Hugging me because “it’s been too long since we’ve touched.” Supporting my choice to get a giant cake tattoo on my thigh by telling me that it’s my body and I should do what I want with it.  Reaching for my hand as we drive together. Reaching for me in the morning, hungry to feel the heat of me. The days when I see how much he does for me and I take the time to tell him how much it means to me. The days when he sees how much I do for him and he takes the time to tell me how much it means to him. Withholding eye rolls when I make my life more difficult by staunchly sticking by my principles. Allowing each other to run toward what we think we want most (even if we have reservations about whether that thing we want is actually the thing we need.) Understanding that we can’t be everything to each other. Fiercely loving our children and marveling that we joined together and made something so magnificent. Always, always allowing the other person to shift and change.

Writing out that list has shifted me into that mushy mindset one would expect from a 10th anniversary address. Come home safely from London, My Love. We still have good work to do.

10/5/2018 – On Reframing After #METOO

During summer break in 2005 I worked as a volunteer coordinator for the Stadium of Fire concert, a 4th of July celebration that takes place in the football stadium at BYU. I had been organizing university-wide events for the student body, dances and awards ceremonies and a baby pageant (it is BYU after all), and I wanted to learn more about the behind-the-scenes that went into organizing larger events.

I spent a week in the underbelly of the football stadium, buying towels and toiletries for the talent trailers of Mandy Moore and Lonestar, doing the sort of fetching tasks and menial work one does when they are young and energetic and eager to prove what a great employee they would be. My supervisor didn’t need very much from me until later in the week and so she told me to help the talent manager with his tasks as well. He was somewhere around 50 years old, a solid 25+ years older than me. I had gained a lot of weight since graduating from high school and no guys my age were expressing interest in me and so I was flattered when this older man paid me a little extra attention.

He asked me to come with him to get something and he was one of the people in charge of my volunteer efforts so I went. I can’t remember what it was we were getting, but we took a golf cart to a deserted locker room. He kissed me and I didn’t tell him to stop, maybe I kissed him back. He reached to fondle my breasts, but I insisted that I didn’t do that kind of thing and he stopped. We drove back and I thought over and over “I kissed an old man. What just happened? Why did I do that?” Looking back now I am fairly certain that we didn’t retrieve anything from the locker room and the whole thing was a ruse to be alone with me.

We had a second encounter, in Mandy Moore’s trailer when I was dropping off soap or snacks or something else they had asked me to purchase for her. He kissed me again, but I don’t remember him pushing for anything more than that. I never saw or heard from him again after the concert. I have no idea if anyone else working that week knew what was happening and I’ve only told this story to a very small number of people because for a long time I was very ashamed or embarrassed or guilty or confused about the whole thing.

I don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed or guilty anymore and that has opened up my ability to re-examine this experience in the wake of #metoo. I initially felt guilt or shame because I didn’t know how to categorize such actions within my Mormon framework. Kissing was a way to express affection or desire for someone who you wanted to marry, and that was the point of all of it, to get married. I wondered if I was supposed to confess a sin to my bishop because he had touched my breast.

It’s only recently that I’ve been revisiting that experience and realizing that I missed something very important. He should have known better. He was in a position of power over me, and I was very willing to do what he asked of me because I wondered if he might be someone who could connect me with opportunities in the future. My Mormon beliefs provided the gumption I needed to stand up for myself and cut him off in the locker room, but I was very lucky that I was having an encounter with someone who didn’t feel entitled to my body. This story easily could have gone the other way entirely.

I can’t describe how I provided consent, but I also can’t say this was done without my consent. This isn’t a story about assault. I wanted to write it out because if what it taught me about the tangled relationship between context and consent. He should have known better. He used his power to set up situations where he could corner me. This wasn’t anything like enthusiastic consent, it was something on the fringes of coercion.

If I saw him on the street I’m not sure I would recognize him. Maybe this thing I’ve thought a lot about has never crossed his mind again. Somehow I get to think of myself as lucky because he didn’t assault me, because he’s one of the #notallmen who knows to stop when a woman says no. Whoop-di-doo, that’s a pathetic bar to be able to clear. He really should have known better.

9/22/2018 – On Implicit Bias

This week a neighbor hired me to do headshots for himself and his business partner. I told my sister about the shoot, expressing some jitters around posing and directing two men in familiar but not-too-familiar ways. It’s something I’ve never done before and I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like.

And I still don’t know what that would look like because the business partner is a woman.

That right there, is implicit bias. I was never told the gender of the business partner and so, based on everything my brain contains about who business partners are and what they are like, I made the assumption that this man’s business partner was also male. Somewhere deep down in my brain lies the belief that business partners are male because that’s what I was told or that’s what I saw. A little pocket of sexism residin’ up in my noggin. I probably won’t make that same mistake again, but there will be others because noticing this addresses the branch but it doesn’t eliminate the root.

I first heard the term Implicit Bias when I began reading and learning about race relations in America. My studies had helped me to see slivers and cords of racism manifested by people I know and care about, and I didn’t know how to reconcile the overall character of the person with the things they said about other people based on where they were from or the color of their skin. Implicit Bias doesn’t excuse these harmful statements and acts, but it does give us a starting point for the Why.

Why? Because we are all a complicated byproduct of our upbringing and surroundings. We start absorbing as babies and it never stops. The work to identify and address our personal implicit biases is difficult because we generally don’t know they are there until we are forced to confront them head-on. And it’s hard to be honest about these parts of ourselves that we don’t like. I am carrying around elements of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all sorts of other -isms and -ias. I don’t like this, but they will never be addressed through denial or whitewashing.

If I had let shame and guilt take the reigns I wouldn’t have been able to be honest with myself about what this was. Be willing to be honest with yourself about yourself. If you’ve said or done something harmful and now you recognize it, stop. Apologize if you have someone to apologize to. And then make clear to yourself what you did in the past, why you didn’t like it, and how you’re going to change in the future. This is good work, the kind that grates as you go through it but makes you feel strong and improved on the other side. I’ll show you what it looks like.

Past: When a client referred to their business partner I assumed the business partner was male.

Why I dislike this: It felt diminishing for that woman specifically, and for all women. It indicates that when a certain job needs to be done, I unconsciously fill in that role with a male. Imagine if I was in a position to procure talent for a specific position, I don’t want to be defaulting to male to make the candidate fit my preconceived notions.

Future: I believe writing this post will be enough to help me adjust my thinking in the future. I might not be able to stop the thought from bubbling up, but I can catch it and address it much faster next time.

9/17/2018 – On Screwing Up

Taking on the PTA President position was a very quick shift from Solo Actor to Team Player. For almost a decade now almost all of my efforts have been self-directed and generally self-focused. Now I’m Team Captain, and I’m feeling not just the weight of tracking all the moving pieces, but also (especially) that of recognizing or acknowledging the many ways that I screw up. And learning to do so frankly, without dwelling, without excuses.

Yesterday, a Sunday, I began the day at my parent’s house in central WA. I photographed my cousin and her new husband in their wedding attire and felt confident and excited about what I created for them. Drove home, packed up, and made it out the door just after 1pm to get back to Seattle with some extra time to spare before a 5pm meeting with my PTA board.

Except I forgot that driving back to Seattle on a Sunday afternoon always stretches longer than anticipated because all of the other people trying to get back to the city before Monday morning.

And my meeting was at 4pm, not 5pm.

I had said “4pm? That’s great. I’ll be there.” I said those words out loud and then I wasn’t there. Everyone else made time in their weekend, arranged with their partners to handle the kids so we could gather, at my house. The meeting was at my house and I was an hour late.

My husband jumped right in and set up the team to work at my dining room table in my absence. I spent the last hour of the drive talking through the voices in my head telling me I’m a stupid idiot, that everyone else manages to juggle their life enough to be where they say they’ll be, that this particular indiscretion was egregious and outrageous and indicative of many faulty things about me.

This particular form of accountability, accountability to a demanding and complicated group effort, comes with a lot of opportunities to own up to the ways I fall short of my intended Self. Once I calmed down the Inner Critic I was able to think more clearly about what I can do to prevent a mistake like this in the future. This one, being an hour late to that particular meeting? That’s done. The roads are what they are and the speed limits are what they are, and there was nothing I could do but walk in my own front door to a team of volunteers diligently plugging away in my front room. I immediately apologized, they immediately reassured me that it was fine – but I wanted them to know that I don’t find it okay to operate that way. Integrity is one of my core values and I hadn’t lived up to their expectations of me, and my expectations of myself.

I’m not going to dwell on my mistake, that doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m checking my calendar morning and night now to make sure I firmly understand what I’ve committed to the following day. I’ll be budgeting four hours for the Sunday afternoon drive back to Seattle from now on. I’ll extend grace and compassion when others are late or absent. I’ll extend that same grace and compassion to myself.

9/10/2018 – On Living Absolutely

When I chose this new title for my web presence I was asking a question. I naively thought I would find the answer written down somewhere. Like the kid who works up the courage to climb the stairs into the attic, and waiting at the top of those stairs is a treasure map with a giant X marking the spot. Fame! Fortune! Wildest dreams achieved!

There is no map. More like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered across literature, lived experiences, and snippets of wisdom gleaned from opening the mind and listening to what others have to offer.

Here’s what I’ve figured out thus far: Living Absolutely is living out your own life. Living for yourself. Making the most of what’s available to you. Making peace with what’s not.

9/8/2018 – On Inner Representations of Self

This morning during my meditation, a guided course led by Sarah Blondin, I realized that I can’t imagine myself in my own mind without Bad Body Thoughts disrupting my zen.

Should I picture myself as I currently am, and sit with the revulsion I feel over my overflowing belly, wobbly chin, sausage arms, flat rump, massive thighs?

Or do I think of some form of my idealized self, me when I was thinner, me when I was younger?

No, that won’t work either. It always leads me back to Option A, distracted by all the things that lead me to feel like a piece of shit. Because instead of being some form of my idealized self I’m… me. As I am.

I work hard to keep these feelings inside. I never say negative things about my body in front of my children, and when my daughter grabs my belly fat and tells me it’s BIG and SQUISHY I focus on making sure that I don’t create negative associations. Genetics being what they are, it seems likely she’ll have to deal with a squishy belly someday herself, but even if she manages to do what I haven’t been able to (stay slim, master impulses, prioritize output over input) she’ll face down situations throughout her life where she has the opportunity to be an ass to someone who is fat. She’ll know that’s not how her Mama raised her.

I give myself a solid A on this area of the parenting report card, but that’s not enough because I’m more than Mother, I am Me.

There is no on/off switch for this, at least not one that I’ve found. I read the BoPo articles and follow the Instagram accounts and admire the women who have made progress toward loving what is. I know what I want to feel, and it isn’t too difficult for me to play the part and project outward. I can do the selfies, and put up some Instagram Stories about self-acceptance, and it does help. But it’s still more of a band-aid than a cure.

Do we become what we think or do we start with action and the thoughts shift from there?

09/05/2018 – On Blogging

My first encounter with blogging was a Livejournal account of college life, focused mostly on the highs and lows of an early 20s relationship. The year was 2004. Outwardly, I mocked the writer with my friends (we trolled the writer before we knew what trolling was – something I deeply regret after my own extensive experiences with such behavior). But internally I was processing the idea that I too had access to this particular form of self-expression, and I wanted to try it for myself. That was the first wave of blogging. No one was a brand. There were no sponsored posts. It was raw, startlingly honest, and there were no pictures because digital photography hadn’t reached the masses yet.

 

The second wave is where I entered the fray. Posts began to transition from diary entries into tutorials and topical anecdotes. Writers put their real name and photos up as part of their profile. Blogger took care of the HTML and our sites morphed into personal spaces. I moved from bride blogging to wife blogging to mommy blogging. I challenged myself to blog every day for a year ,and writing posts then responding to comments became a part-time job. It wasn’t about the money (we didn’t yet know this thing could be a full-time job!). I worked as an assistant in a lawyers office and constantly refreshed my Google Reader tab to see if my friends and favorites had posted anything new, similar to the way I turn to Instagram now. We followed others, we developed a following, we delighted in this new way to form community.

 

Then the third wave. Writers became brands, posts became sponsored, mobile phones killed off our comment sections and with it went the sense of community. Pinterest combined with stories of six-figure blogger incomes whipped up a frenzy. How to go viral? How to get pinned? What’s the magic number of followers necessary to start pulling in sponsors who will pay cash so the day job can be quit and the living of the dream can commence? It’s prettier now, quick to digest in our snippet-obsessed society, but it’s fast food. I’m overstuffed and unsatisfied.

 

I don’t know what the fourth wave will be, or if there will be one. I’m tired of this overcrowded beach. I want to write because I like writing. Sharing feels good to me. Someone might benefit from something I have to say, and that’s a nice thought too but it isn’t essential. It’s worthwhile because it’s mine.

 

“One of the whys is because I can write. And writers write.” – Dr. Maya Angelou.