This installation of the “Red Chair Sessions” series is going to focus on the year that led up to me becoming a storyhunter and leaving on a storyhunting venture to Germany. I want to continue where I left off in the last blog (see part 1 of this series) by beginning the telling of my story. There is obviously a lot of complication in the history of someone’s life, but I want to give a glimpse into where I was immediately before storyhunting. I believe the context in this case matters greatly.
In the last blog entry I mentioned how I had trouble believing in myself most of my life. This wound was the result of a number of broken relationships in my life; some of the brokenness stemming from my own mistakes and some from the carelessness of others.
While this series is not designed to be a pity-party on my behalf, I think that these wounds inform the history of storyhunting because through them I had forgotten what was most important to me. I forgot how to love others and their stories, because I forgot how to love myself. One important detail to know about me is that I love people. I love helping people, healing heal their hearts through community and listening to their pain. I love to do whatever I can to improve the lives of people around me–it’s just who I am. The fact that this was hidden from me–even for a brief amount of time–is a very big deal. I hadn’t just lost people, I had lost a part of myself.
The year leading up to my beginnings as a storyhunter came with much strife. Over the course of several months that spring, I lost what I viewed at the time as “everything”. Through a series of complications and harsh verdicts, I failed my senior recital and the career I had planned my life around had suddenly vanished. Through my own shortcomings (and general incompatibility) I lost the girl whom I considered my best friend and whom I thought I would marry. I lost my friends from school and had become gradually distant from my church community. In just a few short months, I went from knowing what I wanted to do, who I wanted to do it with, and a community to have alongside me, to losing it all. I was alone.
Rather than pushing into the pain and trying to learn from it, I ran away. I hid far within myself so that I couldn’t feel the pain of what I was experiencing. What I did not realize was that by doing so, I was losing part of myself in the dark recesses of my heart. I internalized the pain that I was feeling–compounded with the pain of countless other failed relationships and romantic engagements–and became calloused to life, living the perceived reality that I was useless. That I did not belong, that I did not matter, that I wanted to forget who I was because clearly it wasn’t someone who was worth the time of all those people I had been connected with just a short time before.
I’ve been a Christian for a long time and through that I have been fortunate enough to be intimately connected to my own heart as well as to God’s. While I plunged deeper into this depression of lies, God was lining up a story that would highlight his incredible ability to bring me out of the darkness.
I filled all my spare time anything I could. I picked up a few extra jobs (working upwards of 60 hours per week), traveled some with my family, drank and partied on the weekends, and played shows with my band. Though I seemed to be living an “okay” life on the outside, I was actually drowning out all the pain that I knew was trying to come out.
Amidst actively burying all my inner turmoil, one day I sold some shoes to a man through my work at REI. The thing about selling shoes is that you have to understand where the person is going, and what they are using them for: to recommend the shoes that best suit their needs. You have to temporarily put yourself in their shoes to understand what they will need. This man and I would become good friends, and the symbolic way we met would define not only our friendship but also provide clarity in the months to come.
His name is Kyle Rasmussen, and as I talked to him I learned that he was buying shoes to travel to India. He owned a documentary film production company and his company was heading to India in order to film the plight of widows. As he told me more I became entranced. I wanted to be a part of this.
As he finished I replied, “Two of my biggest passions are people and traveling, and I’m sure people tell you this all the time, but if you ever need any help I’d love to be a part of your team.” He looked a bit startled but then replied.
“Well actually, people don’t tell me that all the time, so let’s get coffee when I get back.” For the first time in months I felt the desire to serve other people rising up within me.
A few weeks passed and I was planning to leave on a trip for Moab. I had never been and was so excited to check it out with this gal that I had met. The night before we were supposed to leave I had a dream. In this dream I was working on a car with a friend next to this wide open field of tall grass. As we were standing there the sun began setting rapidly and I noticed a mountain lion out in the field. It was not stalking me but instead was running at me full tilt and was staring directly into my eyes. I locked eyes with it and felt its rage and destruction focused entirely on me. “Guys….” I tried to get my friends’ attention. The lion was getting closer. “Guys!” I tried again but they were oblivious. It was twenty feet away now. “AAAAAH!” I yelled at it as it slid to a halt five feet away from me. I jolted awake. My heart was pounding and in that moment I heard God very distinctly: If you continue down this path you will be destroyed in the darkness. It was not a threat against me, but a promise of where I was heading. A warning to turn away from my hiding now or to be lost to the darkness forever.
I cancelled the trip the next day and spent the following week simply sitting in my room, allowing all the pain and turmoil that I had been pushing down for so long to wash over me. I felt a fog roll into my heart and mind that was so thick it made me want to cease to exist. Not in a suicidal way, but in a way to have all my responsibility and needs removed so I could sit and wallow in nothingness.
This lasted for several weeks, and while I was not my normal chipper self, I strived to live life the best I could. Due to lack of sleep and a feeling of general helplessness, I overslept for a shift and got fired from my coffee shop job–the thing that I had unknowingly latched onto as my new plan. I realized that I had used that coffee shop as a substitute for the connections that I had lost. I had decided that my future was locked in Fort Collins, working at that coffee shop with those people, and that nothing else could come of my time.
During those fog-filled weeks–before I got fired–Kyle and I had met for lunch and had dreamed up what we called storyhunting: a job where you got paid to travel the world and hear people’s stories. Where your sole focus was the lives of others and your sole purpose was to hear their stories. To help them understand that their lives had value and that their story was worth hearing. I was able to discuss the idea with him but wasn’t able to fully engage with it at the time because of that fog of depression.
However, it was in this moment several weeks later–freed from my self-inflicted chains and rising out of my depression–that the fire within me sprang to life. I felt the passion for others rekindle within me and spread to every part of my heart and mind. I remembered my value. That I am loved. That I love people. I am good at helping them, and that is what I was made to do. I felt alive for the first time in months and heard God a second time,“You are going to work for Kyle and you are going to travel to Germany as a storyhunter.”
The next few months provided interesting dialogue between Kyle and I as I approached him, boldly informing him of our future together. He told me that he did not have the plans or the resources to go to Germany, but that we would see what happened. I was not concerned. I had heard God speak this promise to me and I wasn’t going to be easily convinced otherwise. So I waited. And often this was the conversation I had with people:
“Wow you’re going to Germany! That’s so exciting! When do you leave?” they would ask.
“Around the 1st of February or so.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Do you know when you’ll be back?”
“…Have you bought your tickets yet?”
Three weeks before leaving, I had no plane tickets, no hotel bookings, and no funding. I had put in my two week notice at one of my jobs, and had asked for the month of February off from the other one. People looked at me as though I was crazy when I told them the plan and how little I had actually planned. I suppose that was half the fun, knowing that I felt called to do this. Although lack of planning is not a requirement of storyhunting, after I returned from Germany we decided that it increased its authentic potential to reach people. We found that it is a lot easier to meet new people when your preconceived plans are not capable of getting in the way.
To give you an idea of how quickly things unfolded I want to provide a timeline. Eleven days before I leave, I tell my church Lifegroup about it and ask them to pray about helping me financially. Nine days before, I feel like God tells me to buy my ticket–which I find for a whopping $418. Eight days before, my Lifegroup approaches me and provides enough money to fund the trip entirely by themselves. Six days before, I meet with Kyle and tell him. He creates a BlueShoe email and business cards for me. Two days before, I say goodbye to my family. Monday, January 30th, I get on a plane for Germany with only the first three days planned out and a month of time to fill. The first storyhunting venture had begun.
The impact of storyhunting was incredibly apparent to me as I traveled. Most of the people that I talked to told me they admired the work I was doing or thought it was cool, but when I asked to hear someone’s story they asked me why. They wanted to know what had brought me to Germany and they handled the situation hesitantly. However, upon hearing my response they understood the mission and sincerity of my purpose in Germany: to help people know that their story is worth being heard. To show them that they are not just another face in the crowd but that their story has the ability to help change the world. That our hope through this process was to teach people how to connect to others through empathetic storytelling. To help change the world, one person and one story at a time.
If you are interested in hearing the stories that I heard during that trip, you can find them on BlueShoe’s blog. They are the stories that I was able to record during that time and that will eventually be moved to their own page on our website: Red Chair Sessions.