On the morn of my 49th birthday


I want to tell you something, but you probably won’t want to read it.

No one wants to.  It’s not a pretty flower or a puffy heart.

Recently, you-know-who has been standing in the corner over there, watching.  I don’t want him to be there, but he has been, so ever-present in the lives of my family as of late.  Even my husband Mike has commented on his recent ricochet around us – its seven degrees of separation.  The 50-something dad of my daughter’s friend hit & killed by a car on Bailey & Washington, just  short walk from our home; Mike’s engineering colleague and his teen son in Kalamazoo (“I didn’t know him at all, but still!  They made an announcement at work,  You hear about these shootings all the time, but god . . );  then, my mother’s friend Barbara drowning on remote Easter Island.

all in one week.

My beautiful daughter Katie, as a 5 year old,  once whispered to me, as I lay beside her after bedtime stories:  “Oh, mama!  I can’t wait to go to heaven!  Won’t it be wonderful?”   I assured her that yes, of course heaven would be would be wonderful, but that I hoped she’d stay a long time here with me and her dad and her big brother Ben.

I don’t know what happens when you die.  I wonder about it a lot though.

I know my mother does too, especially now, after losing one of her best friends, who was more like a sister than friend.  My heart aches thinking of it.

Such is the threaded placental connection of mother to daughter (and to son) to mother – each feeling the other’s suffering and joy  like waves racing between shores.

In some ways, I am many stone skips ahead of my mother, having danced with death a while already, for a decade now if you can believe it.  You do that when a nurse calls you while you are at work and tells you the doctor needs to see you about your test results.  And then it’s an early spring day in March, with your husband beside you, in hard plastic chairs “I’m sorry” the doctor says telling you news your heart already knew. And you do that dance – when your oncologist guides you from the treatment room to her office “here let me show you”  as though you were her work colleague, to look over her shoulder at graphs on her computer of  5-year mortality rates for various treatment combinations.

To be honest, this wasn’t what I intended to write this morning.  Not at all. Not even close. Yet, sometimes the page calls us to be brave, and speak of things others might be afraid to.  For example,  I was afraid to write the word “cancer” here.  I thought by writing it, I would be wooing it back somehow.  My grandmother Gloria wouldn’t say the word “cancer”.  Wouldn’t allow its utterance in her home. That was how afraid of death she was.  (She also would not stand for any picture of a bird in home – these  harbingers of Death – she thought, always so superstitious)

To be human is to be afraid and not to know.
To be brave (and to have faith) is to walk forward anyway, with your raw heart open, and sometimes to share what is inside it, without understanding why.

Prayers, pleasing, and protecting

This is the part I don’t want you to see.   It would be so much easier to stay invisible, and not set obscure questions I ponder sometimes out there in the breezy air to flutter around . . .



It’s my fault.  I’m sorry. 

These phrases course through my blood like cancer cells.
I feel like they’ve always been there.
That I was born with them inside me: it’s my fault.  I’m sorry.

As an intuitive person, one with more empathy than any one person should have, I’m always sensing, always alert to how others are in a situation and to the unspoken vibration of moments.  “It’s my fault/I’m sorry” is my go-to emotional response, when a moment feels charged, uneasy, subtly dangerous.

My stomach muscles tighten, and my mind scurries across the past several minutes, back and forth, scanning, scanning:  Why is she not smiling?  Why is he not talking?  What did I do wrong?  Why is he yelling? Why is he in that room with the door closed? What did I do wrong?

I remember my 3rd grade teacher once stopped in the middle of yelling at some other student and looked straight at me:  “Am I yelling at you, Colleen? No, I’m not yelling at you. You didn’t do anything wrong.”  To her, I must have looked slapped in the face or terrified or something, I don’t know, but she could visually see I was reacting to her anger, even though it wasn’t directed at me.

So I know these things about myself now.  I spend time consciously reeling back this initial and irrational response I feel I was born with.

It takes energy and focus, but I’m doing it.

One day at the page, I began to reflect about this and a series of questions unfurled from my pen . .

Do you think an unborn baby can sense its unwed mother’s secret thoughts and prayers? Her heartbreak, her shame her sadness?  (Go away, go away, dear God, make this go away . . . )

And then, do you think it’s possible for this same unborn baby to grow up into a girl and then into a woman, yearning to be seen but never to be too much of a bother?  To feel, at her core, that she shouldn’t take up too much space, be too big.  And that she must please and protect – like some unspoken penance for causing this shame and suffering, this derailment of her mother’s then-intended life?

How is it possible to discern the beginning? Where is it?  When does one’s story start?


Postscript:  I’m happy to take the blame for my parents’ marriage.  In October 2016, they will celebrate 50 years together.

Reflection by Colleen Nolan Armstrong, drafted in June 2012 and completed today.  #outofthebox

A love letter to you

10867026_sDear Reader,

I am trusting you to hold what I share with tenderness, like a nestling in your hand.  Please do not laugh or shame me into the corner . . .

This afternoon when no one but the dogs were home,   I knelt before 2 small boxes. There was a plain white box, with black magic marker scribbled on it, and a robin-egg blue Tiffany box.

Both of these boxes had been packed inside the larger moving box in my closet – the one filled with my writing that said “Do not open until Mother’s Day 2016” – and which I opened 3 days ago.

My heart guided me to the blue box (the only Tiffany box  I’ve ever received.)

All its contents – papers and notebooks and journals – were wrapped carefully in gift-bag tissue, tied with satin ribbons.  Old greeting cards and saved hand-written notes from my children were tucked deliberately throughout  – their messages perfectly timed and resonant.

To say my heart is overwhelmed is just too small a phrase.


My heart feels like I have pulled open a heavy-wooden door of some ancient church – and been invited into the largest, most sacred space I’ve ever known – my soul is rising up and stretching itself  to embody the height of its arches, the length of its aisles, its gold filigree, its field of candlelight – such a holy, trembling stillness inhabits this space, this moment . . .

So moved and so full is my heart that there was no way for me to open the other box.  Instead, my heart whispered : it is enough.  And the hymn Amazing Grace emerged from my mouth as I knelt there..

Then, I stood up and walked to my chair and sat at my desk to begin typing this letter to you,

I wanted to share this private moment with you,  to mark its importance, its sacredness, its beauty with you.  Every part of me knew I needed to tell you, while still being immersed in its beauty, not to wait another minute longer or for some better time . . .

Also, there is a promise I need to make to you,  my reader and to you, my writing.   And like this reflection, I must make this promise today.

To my Writing – I will honor you by being brave and taking action.  I promise to take each page out of the left-side, desk drawer beside me and read it, with as much love and time and attention as I can.  Then, I will make a choice: to share you immediately here, to hold you back and thread you into a larger tapestry of story, or to let you go, as hard as that will be.  No more boxes.

To my Reader – I will honor you by showing up at the page, by demonstrating courage, and being truthful with my words – even when I fear what I write may hurt or frighten you or make you hate me.  I will trust that truth trumps secrets every time.  And that our shared stories matter, even the seemingly ordinary ones.

With these promises,  made on this 3rd day of January in the year 2016, I honor you.

i remain, your loving & brave writer

colleen patricia

Read Me

8946024_sSome stories we place in a box maybe with clever notes on the side tempting us to open them – someday in the future, when we are brave.

We tape them up and bury them in closets.  Too difficult to face. Too dark a theme.  No one wants to see them anyway. But what if we risked opening those boxes up?  What if we hung their frayed pages on ribbons and set them on trees to billow in the breezes like prayer flags?  What if we let go of the stories that haunt us?  What would emerge if they could come out into light? What could we learn about ourselves?  What could we learn about each other?  What could the stories teach us?

It is with this wondering and wistful spirit that I let myself (and you, dear trusted Reader) peer into the box and travel where the stories lead

Welcome to  The Dancing Bear Story Project.

Mask down

The final prompt for Quest 2016 is offered by Srinivas Rao:

“What will you do in 2016 to assure you and your best work are unmistakable?”

Colleen (& Bear) on New Year Eve 2015



Mask down.
Bear up.




Srinivas Rao is the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative podcast where he has conducted over 500 interviews with thought leaders and people from all walks of life. This has given him an incredibly distinctive view into branding, storytelling, and marketing. He’s also written multiple books including the WSJ Best Seller The Art of Being Unmistakable (2013); created, planned, and executed a 60-person conference called The Instigator Experience; and recently signed an offer with Penguin Portfolio to write 2 books. Somewhere along the way his compass led him in the direction of an economics degree from UC-Berkeley and an MBA from Pepperdine University. Extracting unmistakable stories out of people is his superpower. And in his spare time he’s usually chasing waves.




Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution (with Dancing Bear)

Would you open this box?

I have always been a rule follower.  Are you one , too?

Here’s a partial list of rules I’ve quietly and consistently placed on myself:

  • No junk food during the day (only while watching television, in the dark, when no one is watching (except your husband, lucky him)
  • No deep-fried foods eaten or ordered in public
  • No loaded baked potatoes – just plain, no butter with salt and pepper
  • No mayo on turkey sandwiches (“she likes her bird dry” a former boyfriend once remarked drolly to a deli clerk off some upstate New York parkway)
  • No farting in public (or in front of anyone for that matter)
  • No talking (writing) about private, ugly things that would embarrass or draw attention to or cause pain (shame) to someone I love.  Or to the town I live in.  Or to people who have suffered enough and do not deserve to have scabs re-opened.

Nice box I’ve built, huh?
Very predictable.  Very controlled.  Very safe.

So here comes  our second-to-last Quest 2016 prompt  – tromping down the lane carried in its pretty basket  and gifted to us by visionary Jen Louden (whom I adore):

“What is the story you most desire to bring to life in 2016?
Duh.  The one in the “Do Not Open until Mother’s Day 2016” box.

“What is the story your just-right clients most desire to bring to life in 2016?” Their own story (the one they hide from, shutter away, pretend isn’t there)

Where do your stories OVERLAP?
In that magic space where darkness meets light
And bears dance.

IMG_1524 (2)
Naughty Bear 

This afternoon, on an intuitive leap, in the midst of writing this reflection, I went into my daughter Katie’s room, and asked if I could please have her stuffed bear.

“I guess so,” she says, accompanied by her my-parents are so-weird teen look.

In 1996, this Bear entered my life  – “adopted”  from the Blue Lantern Inn at Dana Point Harbor, CA.  My  first husband Jay & I stayed there on a second honeymoon of sorts.   It was spring and such a sweet beginning time for us – before kids, and just after my leap from corporate america to the land of sole proprietorship (owning my own wedding consulting business).  Possibilities were endless and hope was as high as the moon.

There on the king-size bed, in the pretty suite overlooking the bluffs and the Pacific ocean, was this same stuffed bear.  First he was there, sitting all prim upon the shams, and then , after housekeeping’s turn-down service,  he was caught mid-cartwheel on the pillow.  Obviously, this bear was a mischievous one, one who liked to romp and play when no one was watching. I adored him!   And needed to have him.

So I purchased him at check-out (I didn’t buy “the new one, just-like-this one”bear, the desk clerk tried to sell me from the Inn gift shop, but the one who played and danced in our beautiful room with the view)

For the rest of the trip, I held onto this Bear and looked down at him closely  for many, many precipitous miles, heading south to San Diego along the western-most rim of California on Route 1 (yes, I was on the side closest to the cliffs.)  In years to come, this same Bear would accompany me to our hospital’s  labor & delivery room (twice) and be cuddled every now and then by both my children.

Guess it only makes sense for this same Bear to re-join me now – 20-years later – at the start of this grand adventure  – a kind of falling into the beginning of this StoryBox – with you.

[By the way – I’m calling him Dancing Bear now.   I think it suits him.]


Rounding out WEEK 4 of Quest 2016 on “Doing Your Best Work, Not Someone Else’s” is JEN LOUDEN.

Jen Louden helped launch the self-care movement with her first book The Woman’s Comfort Book (HarperOne 2005). She’s the author of 7 additional books on well-being and whole living, including her most recent book, A Year of Daily Joy (National Geographic 2014). She believes self-love + world-love = wholeness for all.

Be still and know . . .

I am  being still.

I am slowing down.

I am running my own race (not someone else’s)

I am being brave.


Quest 2016.

Theme:  Doing your best work, not someone else’s
Visionary:  Todd Henry
Prompt:  “It takes bravery to know your strengths and operate diligently within them.  Are you running your race, or someone else’s?”

  TODD HENRY is a foremost voice and authority on how teams and individuals can execute brilliant ideas every day.   CEO of Accidental Creative and author of the books Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice(Portfolio 2011), Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day (Portfolio 2015), and Louder Than Words:Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice(Portfolio 2015), Todd travels the globe like a creative arms dealer to equip people and companies with the right systems and habits that lead to everyday brilliance

(Do not)open until . . .

Last May, I packed all my writing in a tall moving box.  It is taped up and buried behind all our luggage in the closet in my office/guest room.

The closet is stuffed with plastic-packed toilet paper rolls, outdated over the counter drugs,  random Band Aids, all the family towels (even all the beach ones shoved in a giant blue Ikea bag), a clothes steamer I’ve never used, which my mother gave me, the ironing board, a scale we bought for our German exchange student last year to weigh his luggage.  There is every manual to every appliance we own (except for the washer and drier, which I searched for last week, without any luck).  On the shelf, there is an unrolled sleeping bag and Katie’s old comforter, Mike’s hard hat and bright-blue safety suit for when he strolling through refineries. The closet also has (temporarily) all the Christmas presents I’ve bought, and have yet to wrap, stacked up against the luggage and the toilet paper packages.

This is no place for my best work.


In response to the second prompt for Week 4 of Quest 2016

Theme:  Doing your best work, Not Someone Else’s
Visionary:  Charlie Gilkey
Prompt:  “Which element of your best work do you most want to amplify this year?”

On January 1, 2016, I reveal The Story Box.

I rescue my writing.  I set out short imperfect, fragmented pieces, one by one, in no particular order, for readers who are guided to them.

(At least in the light,  there is some chance of growing.)

In doing so (in my being brave):

  • I risk opening my own Pandora’s Box
  • I risk being truly seen
  • I let go of the Story that’s haunted me for more than a decade
  • I protect my family from the horrifying task of “what should we do with your mother’s writing?” should I delay any further

This writing is my best work (not someone else’s), and it is my responsibility alone to release it, amplifying its rise out into the open, into the light . . .

“p.s.  You can’t stand out and fit in at the same time.”

[Thank you, for that PS, Charlie Gilkey.]


Charlie is a champion of and catalyst for Creative Giants – talented Renaissance souls with a compassion-fueled bias towards action. He’s the brain and heart behindProductive Flourishing, best-selling author of The Small Business Life Cycle (JETLAUNCH 2014), Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, and a former Army Logistics Officer. He’s driven to figure out how to help Creative Giants be their best selves in the world.


how to clarify


8450830_sTo clarify butter, you need to start with the unsalted kind and then heat on a low simmer, patiently skimming off foam until milk solids and water separate from it.

The golden liquid, which emerges, has a pure, clean flavor which won’t burn at high temperatures like regular butter.

(Thank you, Rachel Ray.)

So these are the early-morning wanderings of my mind avoiding the Quest 2016 question posed to us over the weekend . . .

Theme:  Prioritize your Value
Visionary:  Seth Brogan

Prompt:  How will you better clarify whom you serve and what you do for them in 2016#Serve

I remember that, for me last year, this was the toughest time with Quest 2016 – it became one of many shiny ribbons amid packages and cards and year-end work.  And while I looked over and admired it often from afar (oh yes, I need to do that, too), I tended not to go as deep in my reflections as earlier prompts.

Yet, it is important that I better understand whom I serve and what I offer.  At my workplace, this is clear.  In my creative life, not so much.  How will I clarify this in the new year?

What gentle, yet steady heat is necessary?



Be present.



Stand and share.
Heal others.

* * *

CHRIS BROGAN explores how people use content and community to build marketplaces around areas of belonging. He is CEO of Owner Media Group , providing simple plans and projects for business success. He is also a highly sought after professional speaker and the New York Times bestselling author of eight books and counting, including his forthcoming book, Insider: Strategies and Secrets for Business Growth in the Age of Distractions.

Work (what is it good for?)


Oh Quest 2016.

Not sure what this question (or this image!)  has to do with anything, but here you go.

Theme:  Prioritize your value
Visionary:  Sally Hogshead
Prompt:  Of these 3 options, which one is most important in your work right now:   (a) Quality of life (b) Quality of work (c)  Quality of compensation 

First thing I did was go to the on-line Merriam Webster dictionary to define the word “work”.   (I often approached college papers the same way – going deep, getting super clear on the topic, checking out its etymology)

noun \ˈwərk\
1:  activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something:  a:  sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result b:  the labor, task, or duty that is one’s accustomed means of livelihood  c:  a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity
Old English weorc, worc “something done, discreet act performed by someone, action (whether voluntary or required), proceeding, business;” also “military fortification,” from Proto-Germanic *werkan (cognates: Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch werk, Old Norse verk, Middle Dutch warc, Old High German werah, German Werk, Gothic gawaurki), from PIE *werg-o-, from root *werg- “to do”


So next thing I know, that song “War” (good God) by Edwin Starr is in my head.  (If you don’t remember or know the song, here is a link to it.

Go ahead and click it.  Seriously.  It’s a great song.

And my brain (being so clever) is substituting the word “War” with “Work”

WORK , huh good God
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, say it again . . .”
(Read more: Edwin Starr – War Lyrics | MetroLyrics)

Truth is, I work full-time in (big bad) Corporate America.  There are a lot of good reasons why, but the most important one is compensation.

So guess that’s my answer: Option (c.) Quality of Compensation


But then, my husband Mike walks in to my office (*just as I am writing this)

I say “Listen to this” And then I play this  Work song  (uh, good God) and let him read Sally Hogshead’s prompt.

“Quality of work” he says.  No hesitation.

I rally back “Quality of Compensation”

“Oh really?”  (he is smiling that amused Mike smile).   “So that’s your focus, huh?   That’s why you’re up here working so late?  For a better raise?”

I’m nodding to myself.  Oh yea.  He’s right again.

“Okay, so it’s Quality of Work for me, too”

How about you?


SALLY HOGSHEAD is well-versed in understanding and leveraging your value by the way you captivate and influence those around you.

Sally is a Hall of Fame speaker, best-selling author, and a leading expert on fascination. Her clients have included Intel, Cisco, Million Dollar Round Table, GE, and Intuit. Her recent book How the World Sees You (#2 NYT, #1 WSJ) applies her research in the science of fascination to leaders and change-makers who want to be more of their best.