that soft underbelly

I’m in week 2 of my Composition Class, a class I love to teach, and I have an amazing student with me, back for a second series. He’s in his mid-seventies, and he simply wants to get better at photography. This student, a successful, retired businessman with a family and a slew of grandkids, decided at the age of 55 that he wanted to learn the trumpet. So he went back to college and got a degree in trumpet.

He now plays at weddings and at his church, claiming he’s not as good as he wants to be, but he can play. And that was his goal all along.

So I’ve been thinking what an extraordinary act of bravery it takes to do something like this. I’m sure Charles, my student, doesn’t feel particularly brave, but I think he is. I think all the students who come to my classes are brave. It’s a vulnerable place to be, to show up somewhere and admit that you don’t know something and that you’re ready to learn.

Each week my students bring printed photos to class, the good and the well, works-in-progress, and they put them up on a giant felt board for me and their classmates to discuss. It’s a terrifying process really. We see carefully curated Instagram feeds and well-coordinated web pages, and we want our work to be perfect, right off the bat. There’s something about being creative that means we bare our souls to the world, sharing our deepest secrets in the work we make. It’s a vulnerable place to be.

But what if being vulnerable means tapping into what makes us most powerful? What if it means letting go of fear and realizing that by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable we actually let ourselves become stronger?

When I was last in London, I went with Annie and her husband to swim at the Mixed Ponds in Hampstead Heath. We biked there. They asked me if I was fine with cycling, and after the barest of hesitation, I said, “sure!”

I was not.

Truth is, the cycling tapped into many of the things that make me uncomfortable. Speed (except when I’m in my car). My struggles with left and right (don’t laugh). London traffic (!!). As I plugged away in a too-high gear, I kept reminding myself that it’s important to do things that make me uncomfortable. But here’s the thing. Not everything that makes us uncomfortable is powerful or some great lesson, and for me, cycling to the Ponds was not.

For me, the lesson came later that evening, when after another brief hesitation, I answered honestly when Annie and her husband asked what I thought of cycling to the ponds. I hated every second of it. The truth is, I don’t love cycling (crazy, I know). Also, do you know they drive on the left hand side of the road in England? Yes! That was a little daunting. And I’ll be completely frank here, I didn’t like looking stupid.

I didn’t like sounding stupid either, when I told them how uncomfortable I was, but after I said the words out loud, I felt better. Stronger, somehow. As if owning where I wasn’t comfortable made me step more fully into myself.

I think all these steps are an act of bravery. All these ways, big and little, that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Whether it’s sharing our images in a class or online. Whether it’s swimming in cold water for the first time. Whether it’s saying yes to new things or no to things you don’t like, being willing to open yourself up, well, it opens the world up to you.


Sometimes the very act of putting your face in front of the camera or your words to the page can be that big act of bravery that shows your most vulnerable side, and I’d wager to say that’s when we get to be our most creative. When we reach in and allow ourselves to open up, that’s when things start to get interesting. Put it all out there? Reveal who you really are? That’s when the magic happens.

The truth is, I’m not always the greatest at this. I hesitate too often. I’m regularly reluctant. Who wants to look like an idiot? Well, not me. But as I’ve been telling my students this week, when we exercise these muscles they get stronger. So I’m up to keep trying at least. I’ll keep getting in front of the camera. I’ll keep admitting I don’t like biking. I probably won’t learn the trumpet, but I will keep singing. (I could write a whole blog post about signing and being vulnerable, but I’ll save that for another day.) And I’ll keep trusting that vulnerability will reward me in return.