What to Do When Your Creative Muse Goes AWOL

I wish my muse was better behaved. I really do. But like me, she’s a free spirit—and sometimes she takes the day off without letting me know. 

In the past, if I’m honest, she’s taken more than a day or two. Once, she even took off a whole decade. (That’s another story for another day…) But even when my Muse IS on the job, the “fits of genius” come sporadically at best. So much of the time, showing up for my art or my passion project feels like plain old work.  

What’s a creative woman to do when her deepest creative self seems to run on fumes … and she really just wants to get back in the FLOW?

First, don’t panic. 

Everyone experiences dry spells. It could even be that you are coming back to your creativity after a long dry season, or a busy season serving others, and you wonder if it’s even possible to muster up that mojo again. 

I’ve been in both scenarios, and I can say for sure that it IS indeed possible to get that mojo back. But not by trying so so so hard to make it all happen. 

I like to think about creativity like a small child, or a small animal. She only comes out when she truly feels safe. 

Rush your Muse, pressure her, or make demands—and she’ll likely run the other direction. But if you can create a relaxed, fun environment that invites her to come close without forcing it, you might be surprised how fast the ideas spring up again. 

So perhaps the best advice I can give you is to …

Relax. 

Yes, I know, woman of action: that might not come easily to you. It seems more valuable to just keep piling on the action, trying to get more done, putting yourself under and even bigger load. But the more you sweat and strive, the less far you’ll actually get. 

So put on some music that makes you feel happy. 

Take that overdue bubble bath. 

Have a glass of wine or herbal tea.

Take a hike or do some serious yoga. 

Indulge in the nap you’re craving. 

Have dinner with a friend who makes you laugh. 

Finger paint with your kids for awhile. 

Or maybe … just maybe … pull the covers over your head and try again tomorrow. 

Doing this once or twice isn’t going to change everything, either. You’re going to have to make a new habit of just … having fun. 

Because the more you allow yourself to feel pleasure and joy, the more the ideas will flow.

By releasing the “pressure valve” on your inner need to perform, you will actually create space for your muse to whisper in your ear—and actually be heard. 

All of this, though, points to something much deeper than finding the last lyric for that song or the right color for the last stroke of that painting. 

It’s about learning how to fully and deeply open up to what is happening in the present moment. 

Perhaps what your Muse needs more than anything else is simply for you to accept that feeling “blocked” is where you are right now. 

This iS what is. And it is okay. 

You don’t have to have the idea right now. It can take a little more time to make itself clear. 

Sometimes the best way to get the answer is simply to release the pressure of needing to have it. 

Because after all, your Muse has a mind of her own. Let her be who she is, and you might be surprised what she gives you in return. 

Your creativity may feel AWOL right now. But maybe it’s just around the corner, waiting for you to breathe deeply, loosen your shoulders and dance. 

In the middle of the dance, you’ll know what to do. 

 

 

A Short Tour of Reykjavik Street Art

There were a lot of things no one told me about visiting Reykjavik in December, which I did in 2017. Although in fairness to the everyone implied in “no one,” I never really asked them. I just went

Take the city’s muted tones, for example. The whole urbanscape deserves to be picked up and dropped inside some sort of Art Museum to European Modernity—or at least, that’s how I felt of the washed-out greys, blues and browns that seem to make up the winter Icelandic palette. When you can see it, of course. Many days you’re lucky to get an hour of daylight out of the four or so that are possible at that time of the year.  

Sunwashed Tuscany in September, it most definitely was not. However, the city did offer some charms I had not foreseen. Like its amazing plethora of street art. Worthy of a museum on its own, to be sure. Though wouldn’t putting street art in a museum sort of undercut the definition of “street art?”

But I digress

One might be tempted to assume that Reykjavik street art follows the typical patterns as its counterparts in the U.S.—words hastily scrawled on the sides of buildings. Stencils scattered across concrete pavement, and the like. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

Take this gorgeous Van Gogh-esque home facade, for example. Who could possibly mind coming home every day to this cheerful exterior? Even if it means living in a city where the average December temperature is 3 degrees Celsius, and 10 AM is liable to be as pitch-black this time of year as 10 PM?  

Every where I looked, there was something whimsical to see.  

Dragons, for example. There be dragons in Reykjavik. Lots of ‘em. Of course serpents and dragons figure prominently into Norse mythology, so I’m sure there’s some connection. But I’m not sure what these dragons represent, specifically. 

They could be something like Níðhöggr, the serpent that nibbles at the base of the world-tree, apparently causing parts of it to rot. Or, they could refer to the dragon that Sigurd slayed in the popular Nordic epic. Or one of how many others. 

The artist wasn’t really around to ask.  

Sometimes, though, Reykjavik dragons like to catch you off guard. … Like, when you come around the corner, least expecting to see them ….

Oh wow, it’s a big one! 

Some places have a yellow brick road. And some of them … have a multicolored serpent brick road. 

It might feel like Oz here in Reykjavik, but it sure doesn’t look like it.  

Somehow, monochromatic winter wonderland of Reykjavik was a match for the “blah” I felt in my soul at that time. I was off on a “big” European adventure with no money to my name. I could barely afford to eat in the city, let alone take in any of the interiors of the museums or other places a tourist might normally visit.

Yet here I was, wandering the streets counting my krona for every cup of hot chocolate, and still I was treated to so much amazing art that it was like having a whole museum at my disposal.

There’s something poetic about that, to be sure.

All in all, I found the street art of Reykjavik a welcome and refreshing break from the winter landscape that offered little in the way of visual pleasure. For brave folks who have survived in this amazing country for so many thousands of winters, this artistic expression must offer a chance for laughter, joy, and beauty.

No matter where we live, do we not seek to make it beautiful? Reykjavik reminded me that no matter what the landscape of our lives, it is possible to create beautiful from what we have on hand. 

No excuses. No questions. No hesitation. Even in the “winter” seasons of our lives, even in our own Decembers, we can paint the walls with brilliant color. And all sorts of pictures, straight out of our imaginations. 

If the artists of Reykjavik can do it, I can too. So can you.  

Get Your Story Straight, and the Rest Will Follow

NOTE: The following is a featured post from 2016 which first appeared on my former creative blog, Scrappy Storyteller. I’m sharing this as a way of embracing my past creative self and sharing ideas she had that, well, still matter today. Enjoy!


Every year I have great plans for February. And every year, they get totally derailed.

Like it or not, for me February seems to be the month when I’m called to hibernate in my own soul, mulling things over. I feel like that bear in a cave, slowly burning off the fat of her last intellectual meal so that when she awakes, she can stretch and crawl out of her cave in search of a good trout and a handful of berries.

The reward for my hibernation, however, is rarely a sense of well-restedness. (I actually slept terribly this month.) 

It’s a sense of renewed understanding and purpose.

As I explored in my last post, there are apparently phases to this thing called the creative life. The early phases are so exciting! You watch concepts you heard and read about unfold before your very eyes. 

But once the excitement and glitter are past, you’ve got a long road of hard work ahead of you.

And as it turns out, that is where our storytelling skills most come in handy.

You see, in the middle of all my intellectual machinations and internal questioning this month, it occurred to me that our storytelling skills really are so much more important than we think. And not just for the creative endeavors we might be pursuing.

They’re critical to the living of this thing called life.

This month it occurred to me—possibly for the first time ever—that the story truly must come first in any endeavor, not just in art but also in life.

So often we want to rush into action, or see change happen, without getting the story straight first.

Every day, every hour, I’m shaping a narrative inside my own head about how my life is going, whether I’m the hero of a comedy or tragedy, or how close I am to achieving my goals.

The most important story I’ve been telling all of my life isn’t one of my many specific fictional tales. It’s the story I’ve been telling to myself about my life. 

I am my own first (captive) audience. I am also perhaps my own most important audience.

And like the reader of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, I will ultimately decide how the story turns out.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting I have ultimate power over my own life, or some kind of omnipotent edge that can merely think away obstacles and fly to the moon. But I am suggesting that I do have the power over how I react to, respond to or view what happens to me.

That internal narrative is just as important—maybe even more so—than any external one I’ll ever write.

So, yes. 

As I was lying awake many nights this month, thinking over many things, or letting my mind wander as I doodled in my art journal . . . I realized that the creative life really is not about being in the “right place” with the “right people” or the “right work.” 

It’s about telling yourself the right story about yourself, your place, your people and your work.

This is not to say that we should never make changes to our external environment, or pursue new opportunities, or perhaps finally lay that languishing project to rest. But perhaps we’re just too quick to look around us, expecting the change to happen.

We look to the details of the story to change magically on their own, rather than asking the Storyteller to change the plot.

I am the Storyteller. So are you. If we don’t like the story . . . all we have to do is change it.

After all, isn’t that the beauty of a story? It’s not completely random? There IS a Teller out there somewhere, shaping our understand of what’s happening, and helping us to make meaning of the events as they unfold.

In the case of life, we rely on ourselves to make meaning of what’s happening to us. It’s one of the sacred tasks we’ve been given.

So I’ll ask you the question I had to ask myself:

Do you like how you’re shaping the story of your own life?

If not, you always have an opportunity to shift the narrative inside your own head, and in doing so, to transform your reality.

That’s what stories are all about, anyway: the power of transformation. The transmuting of a soul from one state of being to another—whether literally in the physical realm or figuratively in the metaphoric one.

(I didn’t tell you we’d be delving into alchemy today, now did I? Well, every good story has got to have a plot twist anyway . . .)

A story starts off in one place and must alway end up in another. If there’s no shift or movement, there has been no story.

The bottom line for us is: transformation is possible. And it starts in our own heads.

So as we enjoy this unusual extra day in February, and prepare for March (already?!), I hope you’ll remember with me that we really, truly are the story that we tell ourselves. 

If we don’t like the story we’re living, the problem isn’t usually in the story. It’s all about the telling. 

This is why movies go south. Novels flounder. Graphic novels fall flat.

The telling of the story just wasn’t as grand as the original idea.

Our own less-than-effective telling is why the story of our life sometimes turns out as less than we’d hoped, too.

But the problem is never the story itself.

The narrative we spin inside our own heads, about our own lives, is quite possibly the most important narrative we’ll ever write. 

It’s about time we got absolutely clear on who we are, what’s happened to us, and why it matters.

Because when we get our story straight, the rest (of life) will always follow.

Where the Map Ends, God Is There

Sometimes I wake up in the Arabian Desert, 7,000 miles from the home I once knew, and I don’t really know how I got here. 

Knowing is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it gives you a sense of certainty: to look at the map of your life and chart every point along the way. “This is how I got from here to there.”

On the other hand, knowing anything at all reminds you of how much you still don’t know. Especially when the points on your map seem to keep wandering off the edges, where there’s no landmark in sight. “Well, I got to here, but then the path disappeared, and somehow I wound up reappearing again over there.”

This blog is a chronicle of wandering off those edges.

There’s so much I still don’t know about how I landed in the United Arab Emirates in 2018. But a few things I do remember. I can see them, vaguely in the distance, back on the comforting white square of a life I used to inhabit, more commonly known as “the map.”

I know it all started when my husband of seven years walked in the door one April morning and said the four words I had feared all of my life: “I want a divorce.” It started when, a month later, I said “goodbye” to the home I loved and dragged my remaining possessions and two terrified cats six streets over to a one-room apartment. It started when the gavel slammed and the judge handed me divorce papers just six months after that. 

It started when I built—and destroyed—a business. It started when I sold everything I had left, dumped the rest in the trash and put just enough to survive in a suitcase and left to travel. It started when I showed up in Charlotte, North Carolina, for no particular reason. It started when I roamed over Europe last winter with barely enough money for food and train tickets.

It started when I went back to the U.S., sobbed my way over 2/3 of it while driving a postage stamp-sized Fiat, and almost died in a Nebraska blizzard. Which was not *quite* as bad as trying out a few post-divorce relationships and learning how much emotional healing I actually had left to do.

Yes, there were a lot of starts in the last two and a half years. A lot of starts, and not many finishes. 

Yet somehow, the Arabian Desert does feel like the end of a road. (For now.)

In less than two weeks, it will be two years from the day that judge in Milwaukee County slammed the gavel and signed those divorce papers. Honestly, I don’t even remember the woman I was back then. Mostly because I lost her in some bizarre cycle of operating system upgrades so rapid, most tech startups would be put to shame.

And then there was the whole “moving to the Middle East” idea … Yeah, that idea. I can blame it on God because it was His idea. I can also blame it on my bizarre idea to try out a Christian online dating site — which was intended to surface men in a 200 square mile radius of my house, and somehow landed me in a relationship with a guy from Dubai. 

And no, that relationship did not work out. Note to self: I’d never recommend online dating across continents or crash-landing in the Gulf without a plan.

Or maybe that was the plan. Just not mine.

Yeah, it’s just a thing that happens, I guess. Sometimes you just wake up in a new desert, with a new job and a new church and new friends and a new status as an “expat.” And you don’t know how you got there. Except that you do. And it’s a lot to process all at once. 

So maybe the point isn’t to “process”—to track the journey on the map, point by point—but rather simply to accept that you’ve gone off the edges. Because where the map ends is where most of life happens, anyway. 

God is much bigger than the map itself. Bigger even than its border or the empty space on all four sides.

He knew about the man who was going to hit the “eject button” on a fledgling marriage and the house that would be sold, the apartment that was too small for one woman and two rambunctious cats. He knew that the woman didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to expand to a twelve-person business as rapidly as she did. And that selling everything was a much better plan—even if it looked insane at the time. 

God knew that unexpected Christmas checks would buy groceries and train tickets in Europe. He knew most of Germany would be closed in December—so the woman would be forced to sit with her grief and really let it go, instead of drowning it in endless museum visits and Christmas markets. He knew her Fiat would make it through two mountain ranges, a blizzard and a hail storm without a scrap of damage, and be sold on a Thursday in August for no particular reason except that He said to sell it. That day. Without delay.

And when all was said and done, when that woman got on that last plane in Chicago, He knew what would be waiting for her in the United Arab Emirates: a whole new life. 

It’s a good thing He didn’t tell the hardworking housewife-entrepreneur-artist of 2.5 years ago (AKA… me!), that she was actually destined for a life abroad. Okay well, actually, He had told her that years ago. But she had bailed on the plan. Several times, in fact. She had re-charted the map to make it, well, safer.

And then … somehow … despite her best efforts, she ended up going where the map ends, anyway. Because where the map ends, is where she was always meant to be all along.

Where the map ends, God is there. 

I’m learning here in the Arabian desert that where God is, is always the best place to be. Even if you’re not entirely sure what happens next. Or why the signs are in Arabic and a plane ticket to your old country is really, really expensive.

If God is with you, the rest is just details anyway.

Knowing would spoil the adventure.

From “Resolutions” to “Intentions:” Toward a More Easeful, Natural Way of Setting Goals

Writer’s Note: This is the 3rd in a 3-part series of embracing the natural, astrological or agricultural calendar that starts on the spring equinox, as a more easeful way of working for women. In Part 1, we looked at why biorhythms are so powerful, and women’s bodies natural want to follow them. In Part 2, we looked at how the natural calendar actually works throughout the year, and what it looks like to follow it. Today, we’ll look at a less-stressful way of setting “goals” for the year that incorporates a lot of potential for harmony, balance and flow.

The Spring Equinox just passed, and with it, my celebration of New Year. I’ve been running my personal life (and my business, when I was an entrepreneur) by the natural calendar for several years.

Switching from a January New Year to a March New Year is a tiny shift that has brought me so much less stress and so much more joy. I don’t feel anymore like I’m pushing my body to try to “be productive” at times it really doesn’t want to be. I ride the energy of the year up and then back down again. It’s like having the energetic wind at your back.

But as with any new year, it’s time to take stock of where things are at. So a few weeks ago, right before the new year itself, I dedicated a Friday morning–my most laid-back off day–to setting my “goals” (which I prefer to call intentions) for the new year.

I made it fun for myself by going to the beach, which is about ten minutes from my home in Dubai Marina. To get there, I have to cross this bridge. We’re having really gorgeous, balmy weather right now, and I couldn’t have been happier about how this day turned out!

Perhaps it’s worthwhile for me to stop here and talk about goals versus intentions. Goal-setting is a very masculine activity. It’s about developing fixed plans, with pre-determined destinations, which you will then strive to reach by sweat, blood and tears. Men love this. It’s what gives them their sense of accomplishment and speaks to their inner “conquering” urge that is part of their nature.

But this is not “me.” I am not a conqueror, I’m a nurturer. I’m not a striver. I’m into flow. In short, I’m a woman. And I like to chart my course like one, thank you very much.

This is where intentions come in. The idea of an intention is that it gives focus and aim to the direction I’m heading. But it’s not a fixed point. An intention allows me to let the unfolding journey guide the exact point I reach, rather than predetermining where I have to get to, exactly. Intentions allow me to love myself and discover new things through the journey of the year that will then impact my direction .

Goals own me. I own intentions. And if one of my intentions wanders into entirely new territory by the year’s end, so be it.

Last year didn’t turn out anything like I expected (mostly because, hello, I moved to Dubai on short notice!!) but I feel incredibly accomplished all the same.

One of the biggest ways we can release ourselves as women from the false guilt we carry around constantly is to let go of these hard-lined, masculine decision-making and planning structures that don’t really work for us–for our natural rhythms or our bodies.

So there I was, at the JBR Beach in Dubai Marina. I found myself a gorgeous upstairs spot at a Turkish restaurant overlooking the Arabian Gulf, where lazy brunchers were finishing off the last of their feasts, or were slouched over their shisha, scrolling their phones amid a cloud of smoke. And after I ordered by Turkish coffee, I got to writing.

For this year, I divided my life into seven areas:

  • God
  • Home
  • Ministry
  • Provision (my term for finances)
  • Love
  • Health
  • Travel

These are the major areas of my life. And then I just spent time noodling and dreaming around what this year could look like. What are things it’s been in my heart to do? What are deep, deep desires I want to partner with God to bring to pass?

I came up with things like, “Tour Dubai like a proper tourist” (which I haven’t done, almost seven months into living here). And “Get a queen-size bed for my apartment.” And “Blog every week” and “Make my yoga a consistent, daily practice that feels good.”

None of these are fixed points. They’re more about embodied ways of life. Practices I want to make a consistent, joyful way of living, rather than some fixed point I have to hit in order to feel good about myself or achieve an arbitrary goal.

I admit, along the way in this process, I might have ordered a thoroughly non-vegan, cheese-loaded veggie pide, a delicious Turkish bread dish. But oh my!!! It was so good!!And it gave me “brain food”–fuel for my work.

My idea as I worked on intentions for my seven areas is that each week, as I prepare for the week, I’ll pray over my intentions and ask God for one “next step” to take on them, or a small way to embody them in that week.

Where could I go on my day off to explore something new in Dubai? Should I allot an hour or so one day to research bed prices and options? Or troll Dubizzle (our Craig’s List) for used options? How about committing to seven days of just 15 min of sun salutations to get myself back into the groove with yoga.

These are simple steps. They aren’t rocket science and don’t require me to be a genius, climb a tall building with my bare hands, or jump off a cliff.

I’l just be weaving these activities into my daily life.

In the end, this is what I created after I journaled out all my ideas. The intentions on my wheel are super open-ended, but they represent specific paths I want to run down. I put my wheel where I can see it every day, and as I said, every week, I’ll be praying over how to manifest those intentions in that week. And the same for every month, planning for the month ahead.

I’m so excited about this new year. God has done exceedingly abundantly above all that I could ask or think here in Dubai. I know He has good things around the corner. And it’s up to me to dream big and follow Him.

I can do this best when I create intentions that partner with His heart, as I feel the beat of it now, but don’t dictate outcomes.

With intentions, there’s still room for creativity, joy and discovery on your path throughout the year.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Guacamole With a Side of Masala: Adventures in Fusion Cuisine

When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates, people back in the U.S. were asking me quite frequently, “What are you eating?” For the most part, my answers were pretty routine. 

Rice. Curry. Fruit and Yogurt. Samosa. Rice. Curry. Fruit and Yogurt. Samosa. Rice. Curry … 

Okay, you get the idea.  

But there were some stand-out experiences. Or rather, stand-out explorations, because that’s exactly what they were: me trying things at home, with the help of my first airbnb host and first friend in Dubai, D, the world’s next Michelin-starred chef masquerading as an aviation engineer.

Our best experiment? Guacamole with masala, quinoa chips and some sort beverage that mixes milk, roof awzwah (a flower-and-honey sweetener popular in India and Pakistan), and basil seeds.   

Yeah, I know. It’s enough to make my head dizzy too.  

Because I have prior guacamole experience, Chef D allowed me to spearhead this part of the meal. But I have to admit, he was the one who had the idea to turn the two halves of the avocado into boats. Not to mention garnishing it with cilantro. 

Finally, at long last some Mexican food in the middle of the Arabian desert! 

I had promised I would buy an avocado and fix guacamole during my stay, so he could try it. But at every grocery store I went to, the avocados were green! “Why would I waste money on a green avocado that might never get ripe?” I said to myself. I kept hoping to find nicely blackened ones, but I never did.

Then today D brought a green avocado—and when I cut it open, I found it was perfectly ripe.

“They’re from Kenya,” he told me, laughing. “You want them to be really, really green. What other color would you want them to be?”

I shared how Haas avocados from the U.S. actually go dark brown or almost black when they’re really ripe. We had a good chuckle at my expense—and then (to my glee) he got his own come-uppance. 

I had told D that guacamole (at least, as I make it, anyway) requires a lime.

But when he handed me a bag, the small, round fruits inside were yellow.

”We need a lime,” I said. “Not a lemon. Limes are green.”

His eyes got wide. “Why would anyone want to buy a green lemon?”

Lemons. Avocados.

Apparently sometimes you really do want them both green. ..

And yes, I wanted my “green lemons” a lot. So I did what any red-blooded Michellin-starred chef’s assistant would do: I interrupted the regularly scheduled guacamole programming, threw on some UAE approved clothes over my yoga gear, and ran to the grocery store for a lime and tortilla chips. 

The lime, I found. The tortilla chips, well, I had to stretch my imagination and buy a bag of garlic-and-tomato flavored quinoa chips.  

When I returned, D mixed basil seeds—which give a boba-like “pop” to any beverage and are popular here for their refreshing flavor—with milk and the sticky red Roof Awzah for our drink. 

Finally, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Quite literally. D seemed to appreciate the flavor, but something was missing.  

“I know what it needs,” he said, after careful consideration. 

D returned from the kitchen with a box of chat masala—a spice mix with cumin, coriander, mango powder, red pepper, and other refreshing spices, often added to fruit and salads in India. “Everything tastes better with chat masala, he explained. 

Indian guacamole? Well why not, I thought. 

We both dumped the chat masala all over our guacamole. And yes, reader, it did actually taste better. Not to mention more than a bit more Indian, too! D and I speculated what might happen if we added green chili, next time. And a bit of garlic …

Everything about this place is a mixed-up wonder, to be sure.  Ripe avocados are green. Lemons, too, can be found in green varieties. 😉 One requires chat masala to make a proper guacamole. And your new favorite breakfast beverage just might include basil seeds. 

Why should everything remain as it was, stuffed into narrow pre-defined categories that constrict creativity? When cultures mingle, creativity abounds.

Fusion is a beautiful adventure. And rather delicious, too.   

Weightless Warrior: On Fencing Well at 30,000 Feet

NOTE: The following is a featured post from 2016 which first appeared on my former creative blog, Scrappy Storyteller. I’m sharing this as a way of embracing my past creative self and sharing ideas she had that, well, still matter today. Enjoy!


“Be fully present. Feel your heart. And engage the next moment without an agenda.” – Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change

I’ve always considered myself an armchair fencer.

My well-loved collection of fencing manuals attest to my ongoing interest in martial history. Then there’s my multi-year, still-unfulfilled intention to take an actual historical fencing class. At least, this year I started yoga again, so I can at least get back in shape for this new level of martial commitment.

One might say my interest in fencing to date has been mostly intellectual. After all, reading a manual does not make one an actual fencer. Book knowledge alone will not win a bout. Nor does intending to take a class replace for actually taking one.

Until now, I’ve been okay with that.

Let’s face it: the armchair version of combat is pretty safe. The armchair is grounded on terra firma. My backside is flat on that seat. The stakes are low, the danger nonexistent. While it’s quite entertaining to speculate how I might parry a blow or wrestle an opponent to the ground, I do not really have to do these things.

I do not actually have to dance with Death.

In fencing, there’s a fine line between fighting and dancing. An even finer line between dancing and falling flat on your face (with a sword in your back). As long as I’m tied to the armchair, I don’t have to risk much of anything. 

It’s combat, without the very thing that makes combat so exhilarating: risk. 

Recently, I’ve realized that my approach to fencing is rather indicative of my general approach to life.

While some might call me a risk-taker, and I do have a history of unconventional choices, I know deep down that I manage my level of risk pretty heavily. I only take on projects I feel have a decent chance of succeeding, according to whatever standard I’ve set up. I don’t step out very often without a lot of pre-consideration. And whatever else I do, I make sure I’ve got good old terra firma underneath my feet. 

But that was before I read Pema Chödrön’s disarmingly bold little book Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change. Chodron recasts the traditional Buddhist Three Commitments—known as the Warrior Tradition—for a modern audience.

In practical terms, she argues that uncertainty is actually the only certainty in human existence. The suffering we experience is tied to our resistance to that uncertainty, not to the uncertainty itself. She renames uncertainty as groundlessness, and invites us to welcome this sense of constant shift as a welcome sign we are truly alive.

 Tallhoffer’s fechbuch is one of my favorites. Don’t these two chaps look like they’re fighting in a groundless space?

“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet,” Chödrön writes, “to realize our dream of constant okayness . . .”

I love this mental picture of groundlessness. For me in my current stage of life, groundless often feels not just like shifting ground, but like no ground at all. When things are uncertain in my life, I feel like I’m a fencer levitating en garde at 30,000 feet. All I can feel, see and sense is the sheer lack of anything between me and the pinprick landscape below.

This, Chodron says, is exactly how things should be. And exactly how we resist them being.

She goes on to argue that groundlessness is our best training for the Warrior Tradition: the place where we really learn to live with courage, radical openness to all beings, and love that always says, “yes” to what life sends our way. In other words, for those fencing-inclined among us who are series about enlightenment, groundlessness is the perfect place to fight.

But what the heck does it really mean to fight well at 30,000 feet?

I don’t have a manual for that in my collection.

While I’m no guru on the subject, I have a few theories. To me, under these circumstances, fighting well means learning to walk on air and love the feeling. It means living each day as if you’re dancing through the clouds, knowing every lunge or pivot could break the nothingness you balance on and send you plunging to your death. 

To me, fighting well at 30,00 feet means parrying with your own mortality—and enjoy the thrill.

We can choose to see this as terrifying, or we (like Kate Winslet in Titanic) can spread our arms wide and welcome the wind.

“If we can get in touch with the sensation as sensation and open ourselves to it without labeling it good or bad,” Chodron writes, “then even when we feel the urge to draw back, we can stay present and move forward into the feeling.”

The remedy, in other words, is to stop resisting the discomfort of life at 30,000 feet. To stop looking down, and to start sitting with our anxiety, erasing the thousand storylines our brain wants to concoct about why it is “good” and “bad,” in that moment. 

The remedy, then, is to simply be.

Like warriors, we must train ourselves to fight well in any circumstances. Instead of running from the pain of uncertainty, we actually advance into those wispy clouds, blades lifted confidently, feeling the fact that we have absolutely no ground under our feet, delighting in it, and moving forward anyway.

The problem, then, is never our anxiety about uncertainty. It’s the fact that we think there’s something wrong with anxiety.

“But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it,”Chödrön says, “when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature . . .”

She promises a sense of rest and peace, of exhilaration even, that come with cultivating this practice of acceptance.

All this sounds wonderful enough between the pages of a book, of course. But what happens when life throws you a few curveballs, as it did to me just days long after I determined to start practicing my 30K-foot fencing skills? 

I can’t say as I was thrilled to see huge challenges loom up in my face. But I was not surprised, either. This sort of thing always happens after you decide to try on a new way of being. Some of the challenges, predictably, were tied to recent life situations that are still very painful for me.

 Yes, occasionally women did get in on the fencing action in late medieval society.

In that space, huge old fears loom large despite one’s own best efforts. It’s far easier to panic than keep a clear head.

But this time, instead of resisting the panic twisting in my chest, I decided to dance with it. I shut my eyes for 90 seconds and just sat with the feelings in compassion. No judgement. No sweeping it under the emotional rug. No suppressing it. (Which, by the way, only makes the panic worse.) 

I erased my mind of stories about whether these events were good, or bad, or anything at all, and just felt the sensation of groundlessness moving through my body.

And that’s exactly what it did: move through.

To my surprise, each time the panic evaporated, after about 90 seconds of focused concentration, I was able to release it completely and feel calm again. Occasionally, I was even able to get to what Chödrön calls “blue sky”—the place where you can see beyond fear-based storylines completely to consider how the anxiety-inducing event might actually open up new horizons.

Most of all, I felt a curious tickling in my chest: an urge to throw back my head and laugh out loud in sheer joy at the insanity of it all. After all, if you’re going to dance with chaos, you’ve got be able to laugh. 

When I did manage to truly laugh out loud, I felt a rush of freedom and a sense of exhilaration I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life. I flung open my arms and said, “Bring me whatcha got, world. Bring me the biggest brand of crazy you have. ’Cause this time, we’re going to dance.”

I cannot remember the last time I genuinely laughed in the face of my own uncertainty and pain. Not a laugh of derision, spite or anger . . . but a true laugh of joy that this beautiful, crazy groundlessness means I am no longer asleep. 

I am fully awake now. And to be awake, to me, means so much more than to be “not asleep.” It means to be alive.

In those precious moments, I knew everything would be okay. Because to laugh with joy, and welcome with open arms,the opponent you fear most, nothing to stand on, is the truest form of fighting well. It also the path to freedom.

At 30,000 feet, there may not be much ground. There’s no armchair to keep me safe, and we’re fencing on a landscape of clouds.

It’s all blue sky up here.