Friday, August 15, 2014

The Birthplace of Joy

[Blog entry created by Jayna Fitzsimmons]

Ashley and I have been friends for a really long time, and we have one of the closest, most enduring friendships I have ever experienced.  We met in high school and became instant best friends—pretty much inseparable, instant sisters.  In case you have doubts, here is a photo from an actual family picture session my family did in 2003. If you can look past the stellar posing, you’ll note the fourth sister.    
So foxy.  Take it all in.

I am honored to be guest blogging for AB today, and so I want to take this chance to share a little Friday gratitude for the gift that Ashley’s writing on Breathe Bravely has been to our friendship and how Ashley’s courage in embracing vulnerability has been a gift to all of us.

Ashley and I are both teaching artists.  I teach theatre at Augustana College here in Sioux Falls, and, between USD and her home studio, Ashley teaches music to many students of all ages.  It’s usually not too long into one of our frequent dinner or lunch dates that the “teacher talk” begins.  After a few whisky drinks have been consumed and our husbands have faded into the distance--they’ve become very close J--conversation usually meanders around to our shared passion, and sometimes, the attached frustrations. 
“This student has so much promise,” one of us will say, “but she’s holding back in performance!” 
“The potential is there,” the other will lament, “but he seems afraid to step outside of his comfort zone.”
When our train stops at Commiseration Station, believe me, we swap strategies.
Sorry/not sorry, gentlemen.

In the performing arts, forward progress is tricky in that it can sometimes feel an awful lot like failure.  We have to be vulnerable in order to grow, which can feel scary and unpleasant and like we need to find the nearest tub of ice cream/bottle of wine, stat. It’s gunning for that high note with no guarantee it will be reached, committing to a new audition monologue that might fall flat, or “looking stupid” in front of one’s classmates, peers, or an entire audience.  Ashley and I (and every other teacher on the planet, no doubt) toss around questions like: How do we encourage our students to try new things? To take risks with their work? To embrace the idea of productive failure? To willingly make themselves vulnerable in the face of criticism, rejection, or the threat of anything less than an A+?  How can we best teach this concept when we’re still learning it ourselves—and probably always will be?

In looking for a way to talk to my students about how vulnerability can actually be useful, I came across Brene Brown’s work.  Maybe you’re familiar with Brene Brown, a social worker and author who researches and writes about vulnerability.  If you have a spare twenty minutes, check out her engaging TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”  For now, here’s the highlight reel: Brown says that vulnerability—in addition to being necessary for the human connection we all need to live purposeful lives—is “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s such an empowering message: something we’re taught to see as weakness actually gives us strength and the ability to more fully connect with ourselves and others.  According to Brown, vulnerability comes with allowing ourselves to be seen, deeply seen, for who we are and is possible only when we have the courage to embrace imperfection, express gratitude, and believe that what makes us vulnerable is what makes us beautiful.  Sound familiar?


Oh, and in case that last question had you stumped, Brown defines courage as the willingness “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Sound like anyone we know? 

Bonus hint:

Ashley and I shared so much growing up together, but despite our sisterly status, we rarely shared in the ups and downs of CF. I knew the basics of what it was and that she had it, but that was about it.  Ashley did an excellent job of hiding anything that might make people think she was imperfect, and even as her best friend, I would have had to adopt detective-level observation skills to see any evidence of CF’s presence. The deftly hidden PICC line on a band trip and concealed pill bottles during sleepovers were overshadowed by all of the awesome times we had together, and I was very familiar with the way Ashley would gracefully sidestep any mention of CF with practiced ease.  I understand her reasons, but it kills me now to think of how hard it must have been for CF to be a secret in Ashley’s life.  What if I had stepped outside of my comfort zone to ask questions or offer support back then? Or even a year ago? What was I afraid of?

Ashley’s blog profoundly changed our entire friendship, so much so that, in my mind, I’ve started to divide our time as friends into “Before Breathe Bravely” and “After Breathe Bravely.”  Though it’s been a shorter time, our friendship “ABB” has been so rich, it feels like years.  Ashley’s willingness to be vulnerable to her entire audience of readers unlocked an entirely new understanding of my dearest friend and brought a new depth of connection to our relationship.  It gave me a vocabulary to ask questions.  It gave me permission to get involved.  It was a key under a welcome mat.  Maybe you feel that way, too.

Two weeks ago, Ashley and I took a break from talking about teaching and raised our whiskey drinks in a toast to her 55% lung function.  A year ago, I might not have even known about that success, and now, because of Ashley’s courage, I get to celebrate it!  Thank you, Ashley!  You show us that opening up to be fully seen by others makes for a purposeful life—and you are living it.  Through every challenge and victory, what a gift it is to truly see my best friend!

What rewards could you reap by stepping outside of your comfort zone?  Try something new today.  Thank someone who has changed your life.  And, this one’s really important: call your best friend. 


  1. Very positive attitude! Laughing and positive attitude really makes a difference in all!
    To improve breathing and deal with over mucus production in CF check - salt aerosol really helps with breathing!

  2. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your friendship with us. Suzy Schramm