“It’s not that we’re afraid of death—we’re only afraid of death because we want to make sure we’ve lived enough.” —Chris Guillebeau, @AliveinBerlin
Remains of the Berlin Wall (left), and Templehofer Feld, an abandoned airport (photographs by Alex).
Three and a half years ago, I booked a plane ticket to Portland, Oregon.
I went by myself—all alone, nervously navigating the easy public transportation to head to a gathering of people called WDS. I’d been listening in to a few blogs and I’d just finished a book by Chris Guillebeau, and I thought — yes. This might be important. I wanted to be a part of the conversations happening around freedom, travel, and unconventional, intentional living.
It was a warm, sunny day in Portland. I walked up to the outside of the conference, terrified and itchy inside of my own skin. All the memories of high school flooded back into me, colliding with my inner introvert’s desire to run to the nearest coffeeshop and sit alone, happily devouring a novel and a cappucino. I wore my go-to (read: only) jeans, flip-flops, and pinned my hair up in a ponytail. I had not met many online internet friends, and I was reading blogs and inspiration like crazy. But in real life? I knew no one.
In the course of a weekend, I was swept up by the vibrancy and earnestness of people willing to live on their own terms — people with a willingness to risk not just if it goes right but also figure it out when it goes wrong — people willing to dance in the parks and hug and flip upside down for handstands. In a few short days, I found friends, from age 4 to age 64 and we giggled in hammocks like adults who should still be playing.
What I remember most is the feeling of leaving with life-long friends.
I met my own personal heroes in real life and realized how goofy and wonderful they were in person — thoughtful and philosophical and weird online, even more expressive and alive in person.
Fast forward a few years later:
After a couple of years of conference hopping, I’ll be honest: I was beginning to feel weary of the conference circuit. There was only so much inspiration I could swallow before I felt the urgency to sit down and make things. And so, I retreated a bit: I moved to New York, set up a new office for myself, and (for the most part, although I’m vastly oversimplifying the creative process), I sat and I made things — building out projects and workshops and classes. I worked from home, and I worked mostly alone.
And I forgot.
I forgot how much I need to connect to other people, to see my life mirrored in the stories of other people’s lives, to say, Yes, and realize, Oh, this happened to you, too? — And wander around with words for countless hours (and countless beers) until you roar with laughter and lose your voice from over-talking after far too much time wallowing in contemplation and ideas and giggles.
I was waiting on the outside.
And a small confession: somehow I thought Alive in Berlin was for other people. I sat on the outside (in my mind), perched in the idea of the excitement that attendees would feel, helping to support, organize, share. But I never realized that I would also be attending. I was a speaker, obviously, so I was not an attendee.
Maybe it was me who needed this the most.
The first talk left me in tears. The energy and enthusiasm (and grilling, honest, heartfelt questions of the attendees) reminded me how potent and powerful a tribe can be. That a dear friend of mine made this magical maniacal adventure into a manifested reality blew my mind. Her audacity fuels my own adventures, and her willingness to believe in possibility energizes people she’s not even aware of.
Her audacity fuels my own adventures, and her willingness to believe in possibility energizes people she’s not even aware of.
Watching someone work for a year on a dream fraught with pockets of difficulty and struggling through days, weeks, even months—working a self-created full-time job with clients booked back-to-back during the day, to turn around and organize a venue, a dream, a website, a project, and a conference by night—is to realize how much energy it takes to create something that doesn’t yet exist.
It’s easy to scoff, to postulate, to reflect on what could be changed or might make it better (is it possible to have made this any better? I can’t even imagine what would, and I’m a dreamer)—but the kudos, the victory, the absolutely stunning outcomes go to the people inside of it all, the people working to make it happen, the people willing to drag through the slog and sift through the dregs to make things like this possible. Creation requires effort, and time in the muddle: years in the making, unseen lonely days and weary nights strung together with a glimpse of purpose.
Well done, Jana. (And Anne-Sophie!)
And so, as an attendee, I scribbled notes, I felt my heart beat a bit faster, my inner gut lighting up in its own quirky dance. I realized, with distance and reflection, that my life needs a bit of a re-boot time and time again, and that this instigation was prompting in me a response I had forgotten I needed.
Rainy streets in the heart of Berlin (photographs by Alex)
The scene: welcome to Berlin, Germany.
One hundred and fifty people converged at the Kalkscheune, a white stone building in the middle (Mitte) of Berlin, a hop and skip away from public transportation. The city, designed for 10 million but currently hosting just over 3 million, feels as though it’s part park and part city. Transportation runs easily from the center outwards towards successive ring roads, while bar patrons carry beer in open containers along the streets. The city has an easy, relaxed feel to it, although the mornings feel like they start slowly, seized by drifts of an unspoken melancholy, hidden underneath a metaphorical fog that takes until nearly noon to burn off. By evening, restaurant tables are picked off one by one, and then they are done for the night—unlike America, there isn’t as much turnover to the tables. You sit down, you eat, and you stay.
The first floor of the entire city is tagged, cans of spray paint tracing as high as the arm can reach before running away; we return with friends one evening to find a fresh tag on the door after leaving for a walk. In pockets of the city, art cascades into piece after piece, an illustrated take on comics, politics, and glocal situations siding up to five-story architecture, camps, and dancing down small alleyways.
Street art in Berlin (photographs by Alex)
Despite all notions of German efficiency, large projects seem to take their time, collapsing under the bureaucracy of project management; while already having three airports (technically), the city was still slated to open a shiny new airport in 2012 or 2013, but it still hasn’t yet started operating. Rumors tell us that the engineering didn’t work, that the electricity couldn’t be shut off and wasted thousands of energy hours down the coils, and that the massive public campaign announcing the airport was absurdly expensive and moreover, moot.
Instead, we flew into TXL, deplaning onto the runway in the rain, bussing with economy packed cargo to a tiny airport terminal filled with shouting protestors. Bleary-eyed, we search for the traveler’s necessities: coffee, the restroom, and an ATM. We arrived on Wednesday, a day early to shake off the time change and to explore the city by foot before warming up to the conference. And on Friday, people fly in from Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, France, and more to join together for a conference called Alive.
Notes, reminders + reflections from Alive in Berlin:
1. I forget. We all forget.
The dance of life is forgetting and remembering.
Concealment hides the truth from us, a layer or veil across our eyes. We wake up when we notice a difference, a change, or when we find ourselves with a new pair of eyes.
We all forget. Sometimes we forget who we are, what we need, or where we’re going. When we’re stuck, we need friends, events, inspiration, or books to remind us. We have so many books—books from the ages—and yet we keep telling the same stories. Why? Because they remind us who we are, what we want, and what we value.
We come back to reconnect. To remember. To reignite.
It’s okay to forget, because it invites us to remember.
2. “If you are stiff physically and stiff emotionally, it’s very hard to move through life.” — Dr. Carolyn Eddleston.
Flexibility and strength are the pulsation of life. Life is about movement, about change, about growth.
3. Our thoughts and emotions are muscles. —Ben Austin.
The more we train ourselves to do something, the better we get. Whether that’s facing fear with courage and learning how to come out the other side, practicing opening up to love, or reducing the number of self-defeating thoughts we have, awareness over ourselves is what results in self-mastery and owning into your own power. Ben Austin reminded us that thoughts are habits, too, and that owning our own feelings and movements helps us channel and change our energy. Carl Paoli showed us how simple movements are the foundations of life’s dance.
4. Your collaborators are critical. Choose and find your tribe (and keep looking if you need to).
I’ve tried hundreds of groups, and many just didn’t feel quite right. Perhaps it was me and my energetic projection; my difficulty showing my true self, a lack of my own transparency. But I knew to keep going. If you haven’t found your tribe, keep looking. Your people are out there. As Pam Slim said, “choose your collaborators wisely.”
5. The stories you tell are about two things: You to yourself, and you to others.
You have two sets of stories: the stories you tell yourself and the stories you tell other people (Pam Slim). Learn them and know what they are.
6. Relationships amplify everything.
Better, worse, more dramatic, more lonesome — whatever you carry into a relationship gets amplified by the pairing. Relationships show you the edges and unfinished corners that need a bit of work; working on yourself is something you do before, during, and within all relationships.
7. Suffering is a natural part of the creative process.
Learning how to create and innovate is a skill that is built—there is no way to develop the skill of creating and executing without creating and executing. To build this skill, you must engage in action. Action can be painful, brutal, and honest. Create anyways.
8. Creating gets easier the more that you do it.
It’s a muscle. Swimming taught me through thousands of repetitions to get up in the face of fear and make it through to the other side. While the fear never fully went away, my willingness to walk up and keep going in the face of it grew. Fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, it’s learning how to engage with it.
9. I talked about peeing myself onstage.
Feelings get a bad rap sometimes. In my talk at Alive in Berlin, I examined the upside of loneliness, and how feelings can be incredible tools to finding and navigating our lives.
As an example, I considered what it might be like to live in a world without feelings—can you imagine not knowing when you’d next use the bathroom, but just going randomly? And so I stood, demonstrating the act of pissing oneself and not knowing that you’ve gone to the bathroom until you see evidence on your pants and the floor. But I digress.
Loneliness, like many other emotions, can be a wayfinder for finding our way back to our heart and our home. I’ll post the full talk if the talks become available from the conference.
10. The space between where you want to go and what you have often requires loss before regaining ground. —Greg Hartle
We have to let go of the old to begin the new. The important condition in this relationship is that the letting go has to happen first. To make space for new things in our lives, we often have to let go of the old thing first, wading through the murky middle of uncertainty before building something new. Newness is uncomfortable, uncertain, and scary. Everyone wants to start something new, but want to do it while holding on to the old.
You can go no further than that which you are attached to. — Greg Hartle
Let go of what you need to let go of: this is what frees up space. It’s not always so neat and tidy, either. Often there’s a long space in the middle, filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Give yourself the gift of pause — the space between trigger and reaction — and embrace the uncertainty.
11. My super power is believing things are possible.
On our badges, we were asked to list our superpowers. Alex and I struggled— what is a superpower?—and we initially came up with tactile skills, like making art and doing handstands. It’s easier to write down something you know how to do, rather than something conceptual.
But on a walk through Berlin with friends after the conference, we realized that our super powers lie in the ways that we see the world. Alex’s super power is making things beautiful, even just by the way he sees the world, and mine is in believing that things are possible. Ben Austin lured me into a long, gullible tale—and I couldn’t figure out if it was truth or fiction. And in the midst of the gullibility, we realized: I’m gullible because I like to believe that things are possible. Friends that believe in possibility are the ones who will help you make things happen when believing is all that you have before making something exist.
12. All of life is movement. — Carl Paoli
To forget to move is to forget that even thoughts are emotions, movements through the brain. We move, we live, we create, we are.
13. Success and love are the riskier choices. — John Joseph Whittle.
Mister Whittle presented spoken word poetry on stage and brought tears to my eyes and chills to my arms. Some of his words on failure and success reminded us that success and love are the riskier options—for the invite in the possibility of loss, of choosing wrong:
“To reject failures to clearance,
Is to cheapen your own stories.
Love is nothing without loss,
Success nothing without sacrifice.
To have it all means to lose more than most,
As you host a risk of choosing wrong.
Winning at anything doesn’t come by chance,
It’s a kung fu stance consisting of one foot planted in courage,
And the other locked in perseverance.”
— John Joseph Whittle
14. The more you bring of your authentic self, the better it gets.
15. What if it goes well?
Ask yourself not just what if it goes wrong, but what if it goes well? What would it look like if everything goes right?
16. Life is about continuously waking up.
Waking up to yourself, waking up to your ideas, waking up to new realities.
16. There are only two questions you need to ask yourself:
What kind of world do you want to live in?
And what will you do to build a piece of it?
Watch the ripple build: the power of a network.
Beyond anything else, it’s about building a community and a tribe. The power of like-minded people who come together to laugh, share, inspire, and support each other is what makes magic happen. Here’s some of what people had to say about the conference:
From the attendees: Link round-up + blog post love:
- Takeaways from Dave Ursillo’s Creativity Workshops (he hosted one at Alive!)
- The ever-inspiring stream of quotes + notes on Sticky Inspiration by Reggie Black.
- Alive in Berlin, Part 1 of 2, by Cath Elms.
- How much time do you have? by Marthe Hagen on The Freedom Experiment.
- The Daydream Project, a brand-new blog by Kate Evans (yay tattoo!)
- Achievements + MagicMoments + Gratitude, by Lea Holzer.
- Let love guide you, by Lina Boldt, kicking off her new blog Let Love Guide You.
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