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Yesterday, I was jumping on the trampoline with my 3-year-old. We were both so happy to be ending the day with each other - me just finishing up work and her just getting home from school - plus, it was gorgeous outside. I was in such a blissful state of appreciation when Merit shouted out loud, "I love me with my whole heart!"

My heart expanded and I said, "Merit, what did you say?" I had to hear it again.

She said without hesitation, "I love me with my whole heart! I love everybody!"

I melted.

Earlier in the day I was revising my soon-to-be published memoir (September '22) and was acutely aware of how the revision process is making me dig deep into my intentions, the feelings around my memories and interactions, and mostly, my spiritual journey.

Along with my book editing process, Merit's words jolted me back into a state of remembering just how self-love has been so fleeting for me on my journey and in comparison, her journey of self-love is one that seems secure and steadfast. And then, I wonder, how can I nurture her love for herself when it has been so hard for me to get to a point where I can say I love myself again?

My journey has been plagued with insecurities around who I am on the surface versus who I am beyond my labels. The central part of my own transformation has been coming to terms with each part of me, allowing them to all shine in their own way. That doesn't mean I have it all figured out - it just means, there's a way. And I want to point Merit in a direction that allows her to have her journey, her own pain, her own growth, but still remember that who she really is never changes.

Who I really am has never changed.

I've just gone on this ride of life like we all do - looking for acceptance, belonging, connection, and love. Merit will do the same thing.

As I watch her grow into the smart, sassy, independent, loving leader that she is - I think about how lucky I am that I get to remember every day that what she sees in herself and in the world around her is the truer perspective that I keep embracing further because of her.

Today I dropped her off at school, and outside of the school there were men in small groups, standing together, and praying. I couldn't hear their words, but I could feel their intention. Their intention was to love. Tears poured out of my eyes and it hit me - we all just want to love and be loved no matter how we express it.

Traditional Christian prayer is definitely something that has pushed my buttons over the years - I've been prayed for by other people to be changed one too many times. It has put a bad taste in my mouth. I've discovered for myself that prayer for me isn't about changing circumstances, changing others, or asking for special requests - it's about connecting with my inner voice, my heart, and allowing myself to be present and grateful so that I can be a better person in the world.

I've struggled with religion since coming out of the closet - rightfully so - but I am starting to come to peace with the fact that no matter how we each express our need to love and be loved, that it's all beautiful in its own way. We are all here just trying to figure it out. And, yet, the simplest of ways are always the answer.

As Merit always tells me, "God is in my heart."

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Feeling alone and believing that life was against me led me into one bad relationship after another. After a big breakup I found myself in a place where I had had enough. I was desperate. I was at my bottom. I remember sitting on a huge boulder at Horsetooth Reservoir near my home in Fort Collins, Colorado, after my heart had been broken, again.

With tears streaming down my face, a deep yearning for the life I wanted rose from my core, to my chest, and came out of my mouth as I looked up at the sky and screamed to the Universe, “I just want to be loved the way that I love.”

My vulnerability shook me. I looked around to see if anyone had heard me. I had never asked for what I wanted.

I met Clare two weeks later. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t alone. Not because I met her, but because I was heard. I was being held by something bigger than myself. I felt safe again. And that’s when my healing began. My first book was published later that year, and with Clare’s encouragement, I dove into my writing and speaking career. Things were moving in the direction that I wanted, but there was still something missing for me.

I was standing in front of my friend’s kitchen window in 2010 in Colorado when I suddenly had a vision of moving back to Mississippi. My hands were under the hot water, washing dishes, as I became nauseous with fear. I wanted to throw up. After being gone for so long, was I really being guided to go back? I was terrified. It was one of those moments in life that you can’t brush off because it’s a calling forth. There was a path being laid out for me. The end of the path was vibrant even though the way was unclear. Something bigger than me knew it was time for me to fully step into my own healing. I had to go back home if I truly wanted to love myself because a deep yearning for acceptance doesn’t come from others.

Clare moved back to Mississippi with me at the end of 2010. We had $100 to our name. It was a tumultuous beginning. It was so hard to be open about who I was. In Colorado, I had been able to be free and open because there were no pre-conceived notions about who I had been. Moving back to Mississippi highlighted my insecurities, and they were apparent with every interaction I had with people I had known before leaving in 2005. I made so many mistakes along the way. I lied about who I was to avoid discomfort, and I judged others for not supporting me the way I thought they should. To go from blaming the world around me to looking at myself was a transformation that needed time to sink in. I had no idea that the journey ahead would feel like slow motion, and be so tough, and still lead me to embracing wholeness.

Anyone who ever feels like an outsider and wants to create more acceptance and unity in the world understands this dilemma: You feel fueled by a fire within to make a difference but changing others is impossible work. So you get burned out. You feel hopeless. You feel powerless. At some point you realize that the outward work has to become inward if you are going to retain any joy at all.

So the question becomes, how do you make an impact and stand up for a cause without feeling like you need to change who other people are?

I started by sharing my story. Storytelling became my companion.

Since being back in Mississippi, I’ve told my coming out story and shared my personal struggles over and over throughout the years on my blog, on the news, on Mississippi Public Radio, on stages and in classrooms at Mississippi State, in one-on-one conversations behind closed doors, in the grocery store, and on Facebook messenger. It has never been my intention to change people’s minds in regards to their beliefs about if being gay is right or wrong. I know what it feels like for people to try and change who they are, and it hurts. I wanted to find a way to love myself, and sharing my story fulfilled a need to unburden my heart and gave me an opportunity to connect with others in powerful ways. I wanted to understand and I wanted to be understood. In order to get both, I had to be vulnerable and willing to receive love.

In order to thrive in our lives, we need authentic connection. But someone has to take the first step. Many steps later and life started unfolding into the beautiful rendition of the vision I had when I first felt called to come back to Mississippi.

Clare and I got married in 2014 and we had our daughter, Merit, in 2018.

Retrospectively, I see clearly that sharing my stories in a vulnerable way is not only what has given me a feeling of wholeness in my life now, but it has also shown me the value that vulnerable storytelling plays in building bridges and creating connection. Ultimately, I have found that connection and understanding provides a foundation for change to prevail - as it opens doors to a kind of cooperation that doesn’t involve changing other people’s beliefs. By seeking acceptance within ourselves, by being open and vulnerable, Clare and I have indirectly received acceptance in a community that I never thought would embrace me again.

It hasn’t been an easy path – healing never is - it has been forged through vulnerability, hard conversations, a lot of tears, a willingness to be seen, and an active conscious effort to meet people where they are.

When I first found out I was pregnant with Merit in March of 2018, I was asked to stand in front of Starkville’s city council and speak to represent the LGBTQ+ community. A few college students applied for a parade permit to have our first Pride parade, but the permit had been voted down initially. When I was asked to address the city council requesting that our permit be voted through, I thought long and hard about how to approach my ten minutes of speaking so that it felt inclusive. Vulnerable storytelling was the only way. Sharing my heart and my experiences was the only thing that made sense.

Storytelling is an important tool to gain understanding and create change. The Harvard Business Review explains the power of storytelling on our brains: “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing our sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation.“ The author of this article also says, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.”

We got the parade permit. We marched. And the community enveloped us. It was the warm hug I needed to let go of the past and move into the life I had always wanted.

As I walk forward in my day-to-day life now, a sense of wholeness has become a part of who I am. It doesn’t mean that life isn’t hard sometimes. Life gets hard. In the last few years, a dear friend died by suicide, Clare’s father died, Clare almost died twice, we’ve lost money in bad business deals, COVID changed the patterns of our life, Clare’s mom moved in with us, we sold a business, we moved houses, and we have had significant changes in relationships close to us.

Vulnerable storytelling continues to give to me. When I share what I am going through, it allows me to move on, let people in, and create meaning and purpose through everything that happens.

From the time I cried out to the Universe until now, the only thing I know for sure is this: The Universe holds all of my hopes and dreams gracefully in its hands, all while leaving it to me to trust and receive. Sharing my story over the years in Mississippi has been the driving factor behind this ever-evolving journey towards feeling whole and less alone. There have been heartbreak and loss, fear and courage, disappointment and tough lessons learned; all leading to me telling my story, this attempt to trying to understand why things have happened the way they have and why I believe that I am held and free.

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We all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. We all crave deep connection with others.

What if you could have these things in your place of work? You can.

Your boss, employees, and co-workers are no different from anyone else. We all innately want and need the same things.

A lot of today's companies and organizations are hyper-focused on inclusivity and diversity. This is great! But, it's time to go a little deeper. It's time get beyond our labels and find a way to see each other for who we truly are. That can't be done without sharing our lives, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our goals - OUR STORIES - with those that we are surrounded by on a daily basis.

It's time to go past diversity and inclusivity: it's time for connection.

We have to make time and provide a safe space for people to get what they truly need from a healthy and stable working environment that promotes individuality and enhances creativity.

In the storytelling workshops that I have done in the past with college students, researchers, team leaders, non-profits...the feedback has all been the same in the evaluations: "I feel more connected to my team more than ever before." Research shows that meaningful connections in the workplace boosts employee engagement, reduces team member stress and improves operational outcomes.

It's simple, if employees aren't fully engaged, and don't feel cared for, productivity suffers. So, how do we create a work culture that supports the listening to and sharing of our own vulnerable stories?

This is a question I am still fully immersed in as a vulnerable storytelling expert. I don't have all of the answers, but here are some ways to engage your team on a deeper level:

  1. Create a question that your team can answer. Give each team member time to work through the question. It's helpful to set a deadline - like a week or two. A great example of a question is: What story do you feel like is keeping you from moving forward in your work and life? Be creative or make it relevant to your own team.

  2. Have your team members write their answer - their story - out completely, individually, and in their own time - every detail, every emotion - without trying to make it perfect.

  3. Decide on how you want to share your stories as a collective. Do you want to do it on a zoom call? Do you want to do it in person as a group? If so, how much time is realistic for each person to share? Keep in mind that we speak about 100-130 of written words per minute.

  4. Have everyone edit their stories down to the amount of words that you have decided to give each person. The edits should include the components of the vulnerable storytelling arc in order to have the most powerful affect. (I can provide a training around what that looks like, or wait for a later post or video from me covering this storytelling arc).

  5. Create a safe space and ground rules for your "share time." I can help with these as well. Rules like: stay present and quiet while someone is sharing their story, have everyone agree (written or verbal) to keep all stories confidential and within the team, etc.

  6. I have found that it is always most important that the leader/manager of the group go first. It sets the tone and creates an even safer space.

  7. When everyone has taken a turn then have everyone go around and say one thing they learned from someone else's story.

While I am aware that doing a workshop like this does create deeper connections in the moment, it would benefit any company or organization to continue doing exercises like this on a quarterly basis in order to keep morale strong and to move the company culture into one that rallies around acceptance and meaningful connection.

I'd love to see more companies and organizations put this kind of time and effort into their teams in order to show how valued - and valuable - everyone's stories are.

Will you be one of the leaders to make this happen?

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