A Long Walk Through the Fog

Hello Friends of The Extraordinary Project,

As you may be able to tell, I am a bit reticent when it comes to blogs.

I don’t want to admit this post took me weeks to procure, but that’s the truth. A friend recently asked me, “How’s your project? That thing is a behemoth,” and the words brought great relief to me. I had originally thought the idea was so simple. Why not start a project capturing the exceptional but unusual moments in our lives? Why not link them to parts of our humanity that science can’t yet explain? What a great idea! That should be totally doable, and fun!

It certainly has been fun. But much like the walk through the fog I took yesterday morning with bird songs above me, conversations around me but no visibility before me, the path of this project has been obscured by mist. I have spent many minutes, hours, weeks and months (okay years) chasing echoes of ideas and building stories out of memory, testimony, and science. I do love a good adventure, and The Extraordinary Project has been nothing short of a marvelous if foggy adventure.

Fortunately, I have become skilled at walking through the fog.

 Earlier this week, I put the finishing touches on an essay about Near Death Experiences, which I’m told will run in Salon in the near future. I am thrilled to have a new piece coming out so soon, and am so grateful my friend Greg Sklar shared his story with me. Part of my inspiration for the approach to this essay was The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, a gorgeous collection about her experience as a medical actor for doctors, and how we engage with and avoid empathy in our lives. So much of the Extraordinary Project, I find, relies on my ability to empathize with people’s experiences. The last six months have been intricate, dedicated and very, very busy in this way, partly due to the task of understanding and interpreting people’s stories, giving them new life after taking a leap of faith.

Fortunately, I have also become skilled at leaping.

 Another new piece of mine due to run in The Sunday Rumpus at the end of the month is about precognitive dreams, an experience all people have encountered at one time or another. I wanted to ask the question, how do we know if our dreams are foretelling the future. Do they have a different quality, do they occur spontaneously or as a result of our daily behavior, and can we do anything to change them? This very personal essay was a strange but important conversation I have wanted to bring to light for a long time. With the help of some recent studies and experiments, as well as a wonderful editor, I’m pleased to have started a dialogue about our ability to know things unconsciously—and act on the insight. I’d love to hear from any of you who have had similar experiences with precognition, awake, or asleep.

Finally, the Extraordinary Project website is taking shape, and nearly ready to launch. I’ve built out a site at extraordinaryproject.org to help keep the conversation going about identifying our extraordinary moments, permitting skepticism while at the same time acknowledging this unique aspect of our wisdom. You can be sure I’ll ring the bells of glory when it’s up and running.

Until then, friends.


The Challenge of Sharing Work in Progress

The weekend before Thanksgiving I did something terrifying but rewarding: I read an excerpt from my book in progress to a room full of people. Live. To me, this is the psychological equivalent of jumping off a bridge in a tutu, and performing air ballet before hitting the water in an arabesque.  It other words, it is high risk, especially because I was reading to a crowd of peers.

Peers raise the stakes in the best of ways. On one hand I was happy to be surrounded by their presence, grateful to have the chance to gather with people who understand the writing process from the inside out. On the other, I worried my work would not please them.  Of the four readers, I had the fewest books published, the fewest awards, the fewest residencies, prestigious appointments and meetings with kings. The crowd was peppered with novelists, essayists, and satirists whose awards and accolades ranged from NEA grants to New York Times Bestsellers.

Usually, I don’t compare my credentials with those of other writers. We all know this career path is a long, unpredictable one. At the end of the day, I am always happy to have written. But presenting my work last Sunday required more courage than I expected. I was reading in front of an editor who had told me, in no uncertain terms, that my subject matter, The Extraordinary Project, made her eyes roll.

I wish someone could remind me, every minute of every workday, that gracefully riding the ups and downs of the creative process is the real work of writing. I know, and defend the fact, that everyone has her own preferences. I don’t know, however, if handling that truth will ever get easier.

I had prepared. I had read my piece through several times, wore a cute outfit, including lucky boots. I arrived on time, and had invited friends for support. I kept breathing steadily once my turn grew closer (I was the fourth of four to read). Heat shot up my spine, my stomach dropped to my ankles, and my face tingled as the organizers introduced me. All of this I expected; the paralysis was familiar. But the dread that filled me while the crowd started to clap was new. I wished I had never even endeavored the Extraordinary Project, let alone made the research and development process so public. I stood and took my spot at the front of the room. Somehow, I smiled.

I know it’s normal to feel sick before presenting my work publicly, but knowing it’s normal is hard to remember when my heart is in my throat and my face is melting. What I did remember, however, was to stand up straight. I remembered to project my voice, and to laugh a little, because even though I felt more wretched and disembodied than if I was in the midst of an alien abduction, I still willingly stood in front of peers and attempted to entertain them.

Then a wonderful thing happened. I started to read, and reconnected with the work. I stopped worrying about all the possible ways to feel, and shared what I had created. I heard people laugh a few times—once or twice very loudly. I could hardly believe when I reached the end that I felt strong.

If I could tell every reticent person one thing about presenting her creative work publicly, I would say this: prepare a lot, and when you feel like you’re about to die, remember to laugh and congratulate yourself: you’re doing it right. 

Summer Media Attention for the Extraordinary Project

The Extraordinary Project has gotten great press this summer, including a blog mention on NPR's CarTalk and a whole seven minutes on Chicago's WGN morning news. I'm thrilled the media is taking on a discussion of extraordinary experiences, and encouraging people to tell their truly incredible stories of connection, healing, recovery, and hope. So many submissions about premonitions, synchronicity, prophetic dreams and other coincidences have come in this summer.  I hope you'll check out the media spots and tell me what you think.

I spent some time with my brother this summer, who told me he'd try his best to keep track of each time he noticed a coincidence--meaningful or not. I was so pleased at the idea that he is keeping an eye out for extraordinary moments. I wonder what he'll find.

 As psychologist Bernard Beitman says, the meaning of coincidence is in the eye of the beholder. Not every coincidence is meaningful, and it's easy to over interpret if you happen to be paranoid or fantasy prone. That said, there are plenty of types of coincidences that happen--particularly when we travel--that seem to suggest meaning.

Synchronicity, for example, the simultaneous crossing of two thoughts, two patterns, or two people within a short period of time, is often observed by people when they travel. I have many personal experiences of bumping into old friends in the airport -- but I'm not the only one. Michelle V and Kathryn C both have fascinating synchronicity stories having to do with airports and airplanes. Why does this happen? I asked a travel researcher, who pointed out how many possible combinations of events could happen while one travels, making coincidence more likely. When we leave our regular routines, we change up the possibility of events that result. Me thinks it's more than simple math, however, so I'll be digging deeper. What do you think?