I received one of those rare gifts this morning that comes along when you get brave and put yourself out there. I have a new friend Mary van de Wiel, and last week, she had a quick livestream on brands’ About pages. I listened to her talk about it and sent her my About page. She responded that she would be happy to have a conversation, and that is what I got this morning. She challenged me to be clearer. She said, “Your site is dreamy and poetic, and I love it, but I’m not sure what you want or what I should do with it. Can you play around and interview yourself? Ask provocative questions and then answer them clearly and honestly.” So that is what this is.
I was so moved by her generosity and this challenge that I wrote to her and said, “Am still enjoying the warmth and insight from our conversation, so much so that I went immediately to your site and ordered a bag! I’m thinking of it as an investment in my future ‘traveling to give big talks’ bag!”
What do you do now, and what do you want to do next?
I’m the President & CEO of an umbrella nonprofit arts agency that represents arts nonprofits, artists and arts-related businesses in our tri-city, bi-state community. We cultivate the community through the arts and #SupportLocalArt through advocacy, communication, networking opportunities and grants.
What I want to do next is be something I have coined a “Personal Systems Disrupter” through writing and public speaking. By shifting my passion, advocacy and story telling talents, I want to help others get (more) comfortable being uncomfortable, find and pursue passion, overcome failure to discover the joy on the other side. Ultimately, I want to help others (and myself) be the metaphorical size and volume they desire and to move through the world valued and noticed.
What is a Personal Systems Disrupter?
[DDV Laughs] As far as I know, there aren’t other Personal Systems Disrupters out there; I made up the phrase! I was fortunate to get to take two weeks in September 2020 away by myself to a farmstead in the middle of North Dakota for a writer’s retreat. I was out in this beautiful 1920s French-inspired home with nothing but the squirrels, the grasshoppers and the geese flying south for company. And every day I walked the four-mile square section gravel roads around the farmstead.
On one walk, I had a lightning bolt moment. I realized, or it hit me on the head walking past the soybeans on my left and the field filled with big puddles of water on my right, that I’ve been thinking too vaguely, too meekly; I want to actually help people disrupt their personal systems. I want to inspire and motivate people to shake up their day to day to find what’s beyond their current reality.
This retreat was such a disruption to my day to day rhythm—both the physical and mental one that I had been trapped in for years. In fact, I had an amazing realization early on during my retreat. [Some quick but important backstory: My husband is an alcoholic enjoying sobriety, and I was with him when he transitioned from active drinker to a recovering alcoholic in 2017.] I realized that there was a parallel of my time on this retreat against his first two-weeks of getting sober, the weeks he spent in the hospital. I understood that day two was my “detox” day. At almost the exact same number of hours as he slipped into a kind of terrifying madness because his cells were screaming for alcohol, their “oxygen” for a number of years at that point, I slipped into a murky fog, adrift in a boat with no oars or rudder and no north star to theoretically guide my way home.
I just sat with my uncomfortability. I didn’t judge it; I didn’t admonish it. I just allowed it to swirl around me, acknowledging it for its presence but not giving it permission to consume me. And I woke up the next day in a far better mental space; not “solved,” because I don’t know that we’re ever solved, but I felt better and ready to dig into my creative work—that’s a personal system disruption.
I wrote in a blog post the morning after this difficult day:
Yesterday, I wanted to go back to what I knew, to what was comfortable and safe and easy. But today, I am renewed in my commitment to peeling away the outer layer and the lingering aspects that are hanging on and holding me up. Today, I will labor on, getting more and more comfortable with this new rhythm and pace and continue to seek out the unexamined.
Most people won’t get or take two weeks to disrupt their rhythm, but I don’t actually think that’s required to make real and intentional changes in our lives, and that’s what I want to help people do. And that’s what a Personal Systems Disrupter is; or at least that’s what I am!
What makes you qualified to do this Systems Disruption work?
I’m alive! [DDV leans back and laughs again]
Seriously, living is not for the faint of heart. And intentional living can be downright terrifying! I’m not exceptional, despite the fact that I am absolutely extraordinary and ordinary all the time and often simultaneously. My life has had ups and downs, highs and lows. Terrible and glorious things have happened to me, and I have actively chosen terrible and glorious things, too.
Want some examples?
- My parents got divorced when I was 15—it was public and messy in a small community where everyone had an opinion, which they often felt they should share with me
- My beloved stepdad died when he was only 65
- I got pregnant three days before I graduated from college with a theatre degree. I discovered it eight days after I graduated
- I married an alcoholic and had a pretty challenging marriage for years
- I have twice failed moving from finalist to Fellow for a major regional Fellowship program that would provide incredible opportunities and financial benefits
- I never got to be a real movie star
- I have a spectacular and important day job that has given me so much—at least as much as I have given it
- A bona fide angel visited me hours before my son was born
- I have a Master’s Degree in English
- I’m a writer and speaker on a local scale
- I have an amazing 24-year old son who knocks my socks off every day
- My husband has been living as an alcoholic enjoying sobriety for 3 ½+ years, and I adore every aspect of my 11+ year marriage today and have an incredible appreciation for it because of what we endured together
- I’m a SAG-AFTRA actor despite never moving to Hollywood
- I’m privileged to get to perform in so many areas of my life
There’s plenty of other elements, but that feels like a good enough “resume” to prove my credibility, doesn’t it?
But those are not particularly extraordinary examples. The difference is that I have deeply explored and will talk about them. I comfortably mine my own experiences and write and talk about them because I believe there’s value in seeing the flaws and the challenges, the terrible that lives under the surface of the glorious because, on paper, my life today looks “practically perfect in every way.” And I have just decided that I can be an antidote to social media envy—my writing and speaking is the “real” that peels back the complexity and the mess that lives beyond the photos of the multiple trips to Europe, the successful child and marriage, the high powered job, the thin and healthy body and so much more.
So what do you really want? What’s your audacious dream?
This is hard for me, because as audacious as I am (and believe me, by North Dakota standards, I’m out of control with audacity!), I have a hard time putting this out to the Universe because I think at my core, I don’t think I’m worthy of it. But you’ve asked, so I’m going to be brave (and because Van challenged me to do it):
I want a great big (enormous!) writing and speaking life. I want to be internationally known and sought out for my writing, podcasts, interviews and speaking tours. I want to enter the sphere of Elizabeth Gilbert, Glennon Doyle, Brené Brown, Martha Beck, Oprah and more. I want to be a public figure whose words resonate with millions. I want people to know that as I am uncovering and recovering my own life, theirs can be positively affected and changed, too. Because of my words and the platforms I create with and for others, the hopeless might find hope, the stuck might find a new way to take a step, the lost might feel found, the unloved might learn to love themselves and the silenced might find their voice. That would (and will) be extraordinary.
Thanks to Morgan Schleif of M. Schleif Photography for the photo from my talk at Creative Mornings Fargo in February 2020.