Learning to Be "Gentle" with Your Story

The moon is rising, and I hear a wolf howl in the distance. It’s nearly 1 AM in a remote part of Southern Jordan on the Saudi Arabian border. 

 Sun City Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan, Feb. 2018

Sun City Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan, Feb. 2018

My blistered feet in my new boots ache, and all I have is my camera, tripod, and a diet coke. All the years I spent as a Boy Scout apparently haven’t paid off, and I’m beginning to think I’ve made a mistake. 

Then, I look up. 

Forgetting about things like scorpions and snakes, I sit in the red sand and stare into the ocean above my head. 

For years, anytime I thought about the ocean it felt like I was holding my breath, my lungs unable to expand. Secrets about the most intimate parts of myself burning like hot coals beneath my feet. The fear I wasn’t stewarding my life well, or I was missing out on what I was made to do…. this reality burning like cheap whiskey in the back of my throat as I tried to breathe.

Here though, in the Valley of the Moon, instead of suffocating, I was drowning in light. I don’t know whether it was the place, the full moon, or the Sleeping at Last song playing softly through earbuds, but I started to cry. There, in the desert… not far from the one where the characters of the Old Testament wondered, wandered, and trapped in their heads, tried to figure out why there were there and why they were there. 

I’ve talked before about viewing myself as an equation and life as an algorithm, the solution being a formula I had yet to discover. 

This year though, the word I’m speaking over my life is “gentle” – freeing my calloused shoulders from the burdens of the world and pain in my lungs preventing me from breathing in the present moment. 

 Valley of the Moon, Southern Jordan, Feb. 2018

Valley of the Moon, Southern Jordan, Feb. 2018

In 2018, I’m striving to be gentle with myself – personally and professionally – and let the aspects of myself I don’t understand unfold organically instead of trying to force them out. 

“Gentle” lives in the liminal space between suppression and obsession. Its awareness, dancing with your fear, anxieties, and unknowns without suppressing them but simultaneously not giving them power through obsession either. 

If your mind is a castle with many rooms “gentle” is placing that which you don’t understand on a shelf in the foyer… not locking them in the basement but not scattered all over the kitchen table either. 

I plan to write more about what it looks like to be “gentle” in all the areas of your life. But for now, my hope is you’d learn to breathe again, to hang on… not for dear life but to dear life. So, so dear. What a rare and beautiful thing it is to exist indeed. 

How to Become An Astronaut Pirate Afraid of Subway Rats

It’s 29 degrees, gray, and snowing in April, making me wonder how the groundhog that saw his shadow could be more accurate than cable news. 

I’m standing on the curb outside Newark Airport, waiting for an Uber driver to wind through an endless tidal wave of yellow cabs and be salvation from the biting wind. 

The trip had already been long enough. What was supposed to be a brief, two-hour nonstop up the East Coast turned into a cross-country adventure with scenic stops in Ohio and Illinois.

On our final leg from Chicago, I started to realize “Welcome to New York” is a bit optimistic… and Taylor Swift probably didn’t arrive in the city intimately wedged between two large Italian men on a bumpy Southwest flight to Jersey.  

But, at long last, we’d arrived! 

My friend and I finally exhale when we manage to Jenga all of our belongings into our Brooklyn-bound chariot. Two millennials were moving to the Big Apple with an even bigger dream… a bit cliche, right? 

Laying in bed that first night though I couldn’t decide what that dream was, not because I didn’t have one, but because I had too many. 

My whole life I’ve struggled to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up… but somewhere between 6 and 26, it becomes less adorable to want to be an astronaut pirate who writes travel guides from the high seas. 

While I’m afraid of drowning and too claustrophobic to be an astronaut, I *have* always had diverse interests and dreams… dreams of being an author, a photographer, a corporate executive turned philanthropist, and management consultant jet-setting around the world solving huge problems. 

Like the bags we haphazardly stacked in the trunk, I tried so hard to figure out a life where all those dreams came true – where I found meaning, purpose, and peace… using every aspect of myself – all before falling madly in love with an airline pilot who also went to culinary school and played the cello. 

Not only was I missing out on the present moment by obsessing about the future, but I also was too busy trying to solve the equation that I wasn’t moving toward any one of those dreams or using any of my gifts. 

Here’s something I’ve come to learn about math. It’s the worst. Also, when you’re trapped inside your head trying to “solve-for-x” all you’re doing is missing out on the only thing you genuinely have… the present. 

The real solution is the understanding career, love, and life itself is not about figuring out what’s forever, but about what’s first. 

So, out of all your dreams, all the aspects, and interests that makeup who you are, which one are you going to try next? Whether it’s a job, a person, or a place, the beautiful thing is if it doesn’t work you have the freedom to try something else. 

Stop the math. You are not a formula… so stop seeing yourself as an algorithm and start allowing yourself to move on and try new things. 

It doesn’t mean it won’t be scary… in a lot of ways, I’m afraid! New York is daunting and expensive, and the subway rats are enormous. 

I think in different seasons words mean different things. And in this one, “brave” is merely doing what’s next… starting with going to buy a parka because a damn groundhog saw his shadow. 

When Lent Feels Like a Sticky Walmart Floor

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Next week I’m leaving Atlanta and moving to New York. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to write this. I wanted so badly to be eloquent and profound, but I’ve struggled to find the words to describe this moment accurately. 

In a lot of ways, post-graduate life has felt a lot like sitting on the sticky floor of a suburban Walmart… like a toddler straying a little too far from his anchor; so overwhelmed by his lostness the only thing he can do is hide in a rack of cheap graphic-tees and wait to be found. 

But I’ve since realized, my problem wasn’t feeling lost, it was feeling like I shouldn’t be. 

In my pursuit of a meaningful life, one where I never felt lost, I analyzed every aspect of myself and the world around me. I wanted to ensure a perfect future, one devoid of pain. Yet, in my angsty attempt to create that, I spent a lot of time missing out on the present… forgetting the future is built on the decisions we make every day to thrive. 

There's a laundry list of reasons why I'm moving to New York, but the most important one is it feels a lot like thriving. 

Aside from freelance work, I don’t have a job, just a one-way ticket to LaGuardia (the airport equivalent to a Bud Light-sponsored Nickleback concert), a slowly depleting savings account, a short-term lease in Brooklyn, and a checked bag full of J.Crew clothes I haven’t worn since college. 

I don’t know what’s next, but instead of that being scary, it’s exciting. Because, despite the challenges of the last three years, in the midst of all the transition and change, I’ve discovered I have so many people on my team. I have a family who loves me, fierce friends who support me, and a cat that likes me sometimes. Thus, regardless of what happens in New York, or anywhere else life takes me in the world, Atlanta is home, and it always will be. 

It feels fitting to move to New York City and begin a new chapter the day after Easter–a holiday marking the end of Lent–the pensive season celebrated by the Church for millennia and defined by wondering, doubting, and all the pains of waiting. 

While there's a lot that remains unclear, I think the most significant part of growing up is realizing from where your courage comes. Uncertainty doesn’t have to be your identity; you can not know where you’re going and still know who you are. 

So, here’s to 26 - to no healthcare and new adventures; overpriced coffee and Brooklyn bodegas. 

Here’s to feeling a little bit lost but a little bit free. 

See you soon, Manhattan. 

The Year of the "Delicate" Dumpster Fire

Hey, everyone -

I’m not sure if people still read “Christmas Letters” – or write them for that matter– but as, at least on the inside, I’m a Velcro pair of shoes away from sixty-five, I hope you’ll indulge me.

Let’s just be honest – aside from Taylor Swift blessing us all with "Delicate" & "King of My Heart" – 2017 was a complete dumpster fire. 

Even beyond the divisiveness of our country and political landscape, my own life felt upside down; as if nothing I’d ever known about the world, or myself, mattered any longer. 

I spent a lot of the year feeling I wasn’t “enough” – facing rejection after multiple rounds of interviews for jobs I thought I wanted. Most of this year’s first quarter was spent scrambling to bring my business back into ‘the black’ after a series of mistakes made us stumble. Finally, Big Pharma sponsored my Fall, filling my October with painkiller daydreams as I recovered from a traumatic, six-hour jaw surgery.

These "low-lows” were counterbalanced by “high-highs” – spending time in Amsterdam and Berlin with two close friends, driving an RV through Banff, sharing Thanksgiving dinner in Tokyo, and enjoying Christmas in West Palm Beach with my family.

Mostly though, the year was tumultuous because it seemed I'd lost myself. I think as humans we have a propensity to attach our identity to the roles we play in life. Yet, I've discovered those things come and go and who we are as people go so much deeper than what we do or who we love.

 Here's to hoping 2018 doesn't *actually* turn my hair grey.

Here's to hoping 2018 doesn't *actually* turn my hair grey.

As someone with an ingrained performance mentality, I almost didn’t send out a letter this year. I don’t have a nifty new job-title to share… I’ve sold off my businesses and am unemployed aside from occasional writing gigs. I’m single, closing in on 26, and moving out of my downtown apartment. I don’t know what’s next for me; personally or professionally. So on that note, feel free to reach out with job suggestions (or blind dates) and follow along on johnmarkconklin.com.

There is so much unknown in my life and in our world, which is why I think it’s so important to return to what we do know. I hope wherever you find yourself this season you wouldn’t believe the cable news version of the truth. My prayer is you would realize, as I have, that "enough” is just wherever you are. 

Writing is my way of making sense of the world. Yet, I've always found poetry a challenge. I think it's because with poetry it's hard to know when and where to begin a new line. And yet you must. Otherwise, it’s simply a regular sentence. As 2017 comes to a close, I'm starting to realize maybe I need less clarity on what to do next and more courage to begin the next line. Grateful for friends and family like you who remind me what it looks like to be brave. 

Let's keep going... together. 

- J.M.C.