Cami Ostman on the SPU Voices Podcast

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we welcome back Cami Ostman. She began her career as an English teacher, and then after getting her master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from SPU in 2000, she worked as a therapist for 20 years. But after writing her own successful memoir and discovering the power and transformation allotted to you in writing your own story, she began a company providing writers everything they need to get their books done, The Narrative Project. Cami, thank you so much for joining us today.

Cami Ostman: I’m so happy to be here, Amanda.

Amanda: Well, for those of us who have been listening from the very beginning, Cami was one of our first original interviews, our first six when we launched the podcast more than four and a half years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long.

Cami: Wow. I can’t believe that, yeah.

Amanda: And her episode continues to be one of our highest downloaded episodes, even four and a half years later. So we wanted to bring her back and talk about the work she does, because it is transformative. I am a client of The Narrative Project, have been for years, and love so much about the work you do. Can you just kind of give us a catch-up? Because I know some of our listeners have heard your other interview and some haven’t. So how did you start The Narrative Project, why, and what does it do?

Cami: Sure, yeah. Well, I started The Narrative Project ― The Narrative Project is a company. We bring writers in. First of all, we help them create their strategy for writing their books. And then we give them all of the support, accountability, education, and skills building, critique, everything they need to get their book over the finish line. And so the way that we really started is that I had created a supportive community up in Bellingham, which I always meant to be a business, but it just took on a life of its own and still exists, called The Red Wheelbarrow Writers. And I had really learned a lot from some 300 people, writers who were supporting one another. I saw an opening for a company that could really take a writer who had been plunking away at their book for 30 years to get them from that stuck place all the way through to a completed manuscript. I felt like my background as a community organizer, as a teacher, as a therapist, frankly, and as a marathon runner ― which is what my first book is about ― gave me all of the tools that I needed to be able to provide those tools for people to complete their books.

So we now have a handful of nine-month programs. We have the first one, which is called “Get Your Book Done,” which helps writers get that first-level manuscript complete. Then we have a revisions program called “The Next Chapter,” and in that we help writers revise, really dig into the meaning-making. What is their book about? Now that they’ve got lots of words on the page, which ones need to stay on the page and which ones need to be added? And we’re just starting a third year, which we’re calling something like “The Final Chapter, or “Polish to Publish.” We’re still up in the air about the title of it. (laughs)

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: We’ll take a poll. We will get writers their manuscript evaluation and ultimately their developmental edit and help them create a publishing path. We have a publisher that we work with, so we really do have everything that someone needs to get their book out into the world.

Amanda: Okay, so just very quickly, if someone has already pulled their car over to the side of the road to write down the web address of how to find you, it’s, all one word, if you’re interested in any of those programs.

Cami: Yeah.

Amanda: What I personally love, because I also have a psychology degree from SPU and I love seeing the world through story and narrative ― and we said this before: the reason that you are so passionate about getting writers through from idea to published book is because it’s more than just the book out into the world. It’s the transformation inside the person.

Cami: Yep. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that, as a therapist, I might spend 10 years with somebody trying to shake loose their personal narrative, and that one-on-one conversation can move people forward. I believe in therapy with my whole heart. I’ve been a client and I’ve been a therapist. But I see a faster transformation in the lives of people when they write their stories with an intended audience on the other side of the project. And really, that’s whether or not they ultimately publish their book. Just the idea that there’s an audience and they are writing to an audience and they need to craft the original draft and then revise it and create an arc where there is a hero’s journey or a heroine’s journey, just that very process seems to be a faster way to create a transformation in someone’s life than the therapy journey.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed is that, as a therapist, I might spend 10 years with somebody trying to shake loose their personal narrative, and that one-on-one conversation can move people forward. I believe in therapy with my whole heart. I’ve been a client and I’ve been a therapist. But I see a faster transformation in the lives of people when they write their stories with an intended audience on the other side of the project. And really, that’s whether or not they ultimately publish their book.”

Amanda: And why do you think that is? I have some ideas (laughs) but I want to know, why do you think that is?

Cami: Well, I want your ideas too. (laughs) I think, Amanda, that it has a lot to do with this idea of audience. I think that we perform our identities. So, you know, we come into this world and things happen to us and we organize around those things as little kids ― if our parents get divorced or if somebody teases us at school. We create personal narratives about who we are and then we organize our lives around those personal narratives. When you’re in therapy one-on-one with someone, you do have an audience. You have the audience of your therapist helping you to unpack those narratives. But when it’s concrete on the page, that story, and you’re moving your narrator or your main character, if you’re writing fiction, you’re moving a character through a transformation in the story and then you’re digging back in to make sure that you’ve got all the right elements of that transformation. You’ve got the seeds of it in the early chapters. You’ve got the tension building in the middle. And then you’ve got the climax or what we call the transformational moment. You know that on the other side of this project, there are people who are potentially going to be transformed by the reading of your book. There’s a sense of responsibility and collaboration with the reader, sort of a commitment to the reader to go through your own transformation and to deliver that on the page so that someone else can use it as a guide for their transformation.

So I think that collaboration with other people to craft a new narrative that you can organize your life around is really a big part of why writing a book is a quicker transformation for a lot of people than time in therapy. But what are your ideas?

Amanda: Well, I agree with everything that you just said. I would just say from my personal experience, there’s something ― and I think, honestly, it’s a little bit different way of saying probably the same thing that you said ― but taking it out of yourself and looking at it as something sort of neutral. Like you said, right?

Cami: Right.

Amanda: I’m telling a story for someone else. Instead of living that past first person, if you will …

Cami: In the body, right.

Amanda: … over and over and over again, suddenly you’re forced to look at your own story third-person and see these other people in your life as more than the way they affected you, as sort of three-dimensional people. And all of a sudden ― I’ll just speak for myself ― you realize there are times in your life where it’s like neon sign flashing “Victim.” That’s who I was in this moment. And sometimes you realize, “Oh, I had a lot more autonomy than I thought.” And we’re not talking fault sort of things. I just mean realizing that, “Oh, I actually had more choice in a lot of these situations than I thought I did.” That also gives you a lot of power going forward in new situations where you say, “Oh, wait a minute, I ….” You see yourself as more powerful and more able to move through the world.

Cami: You know, it’s interesting. One of the therapy theories that I studied in SPU’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program was narrative therapy. They have a practice called externalization, which is really where you, in conversation with the therapist, you take the problem, whatever it is, the frustration, anxiety, and you externalize it. You think of it as this thing outside of yourself and talk about it that way. How does the anxiety pick on you? How does it talk to you? What does it say to you? Who does it collaborate with in your life? I’ve found that a really, really effective practice in therapy with people and, again, a faster way to help somebody move through self-identity than when we are identifying ourselves as, “I’m an anxious person. That’s my identity. That’s who I am.” No. How is the anxiety affecting you?

In essence, that’s what we do on a bigger scale in The Narrative Project when someone comes in to write their book. And not only do they get to externalize the themes that they’re working with, but they then get to go back in and revise the externalization of those themes until it really hits the nail on the head for them. So yeah, I mean, we are saying the same thing, but kind of lots of different angles of it. It’s just a powerful journey, as you know.

Amanda: Mm-hmm. One of the first things you teach your clients is a class you call “The Inner Critic Relief.”

Cami: Yes, right.

Amanda: Because we all know, even if we have all the skills and have all the logistics perfectly in place, not all of us could get whatever artistic project done because of those nasty little voices in our heads that say, “No one’s going to want to see this or hear it or read it,” or whatever.

Cami: Right.

Amanda: “You’re not worthy of this. You shouldn’t be telling this story. You have no right.” You know, all the things that those little voices in our head say. Mostly just, “It’s not good enough.”

Cami: Right.

Amanda: So could you just talk a little bit about “Inner Critic Relief,” and how you walk your students through that?

Cami: Sure. I started this as a one-class introduction to the idea of the inner critic, and then it became a six-week deep dive that became very, very popular to the point where we recorded it so it’s on demand so people can have it at any point. And really, the way that I teach the inner critic, it’s leaning heavily on another therapy theory that I learned at SPU called “internal family systems.” The theorist’s name is Richard Schwartz, who developed this. I also rely on some narrative therapy techniques and practices because I’m working with writers specifically, and writers tell stories, and so you can’t leave out the narrative therapy practices.

But the internal family systems idea is ― and for those of you who don’t know therapy theory, there’s a great book out there that really lays this out very simply called Self-Therapy by a guy named Jay Earley. Basically, the idea is that when we’re little kids and something happens that’s bigger than what we know how to handle, a little portion of our psyche splits off and starts managing for us. So the example that I often give is that I was born to teenage parents who didn’t know what to do with me, and so when I cried, they were befuddled. I quickly learned that if I needed to get my needs met, I could watch their faces, and if I could make them smile, they’d stick around. They wouldn’t put me in the crib and go off and cry on their own. Because they were so young. And so I learned to people-please, so there was a little voice in my head that any time I saw someone’s face register disapproval or anxiety or anything else, this manager, this little voice in my head, would say, “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do. You’d better make this person happy.”

Those little parts of us that manage our lives for us, they mean well. They really do. Even when they say the meanest things, they mean well. But they are actually stopping us from living freely. I mean, we all know you can’t walk around pleasing other people and live an authentic life. You spend half your life lying about what you really feel or want or think, because somebody else might not like it. So you’re not integrated, and you can get really stuck. A lot of times what happens for writers and other creatives is that they want to create something from an authentic place, but there is a manager saying, “It will not be safe to do this. Someone will get angry. You will reveal yourself as a hack.”

Amanda: You’ll be rejected.

Cami: Right, rejected. Everyone will see that you have no talent whatsoever. And it is telling you things, and you will believe those things are true because that manager part has been speaking to you since you were pretty little. It seems like it’s just you, like these are just your thoughts. Well, they are your thoughts, but they’re thoughts that you can interact with.

So what we do in the “Inner Critic” class is we teach people how to interact with those particular managing messages very compassionately. I am not a big fan of beating up a part of yourself in the interest of healing another part of yourself. Those manager parts believe they’re doing the right thing for you, even when they’re nasty. So if we can turn our attention toward them and find out what is the job that you’re doing and what are you afraid will happen if you don’t stop me from writing this or stop me from painting this or stop me from saying “I love you” ― whatever it is that it’s trying to stop you from doing. If we can have those compassionate conversations, oftentimes those voices will settle down and realize, you’re big now. You’re safe. You can manage this. You can tell the truth and still be okay. You can ask for your needs to be met and still be okay.

So we really teach writers how to interact with those manager voices so that they can quiet those down and they can get to their writing, which, as we all know, the first draft that you ever write is going to be a cruddy first draft. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be all over the place. We have to build a tolerance for cruddy. Because you don’t get to good without going through the cruddy tunnel. (laughs)

Amanda: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely, and that’s all artistic things. Right?

Cami: All, yes.

Amanda: And unfortunately, especially, I think, women, we are raised to be perfectionists.

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: We want to get an A. We’re supposed to get an A. We’re supposed to do it right. Which really, I think, can hobble us creatively because when we try and we’re not good, we don’t want to do it anymore. I did have an art teacher once who forbid us to have any sort of eraser for the whole class.

Cami: Smart.

Amanda: It was very smart, because otherwise, again, women especially would draw one line and erase it and two lines and erase them both until you don’t ever try. And you can’t get good unless you have the first bad one so you can have the one that’s a little better and the one that’s a little better.

Cami: You can’t get good unless you’re bad first, yep.

Amanda: So true. So true.

Cami: It is so true. I mean, that’s why in marathon running, you don’t just walk out your door and run 26.2 miles. You run one mile, and the next week you build up to two. You build up because you have to build up your tolerance, your know-how, your form, all of those things. Your lung capacity. Yeah, absolutely.

“[I]n marathon running, you don’t just walk out your door and run 26.2 miles. You run one mile, and the next week you build up to two. You build up because you have to build up your tolerance, your know-how, your form, all of those things. Your lung capacity.”

Amanda: And again, for those who didn’t listen to Cami’s last episode, her memoir was about running seven marathons on seven continents.

Cami: Yep.

Amanda: She’s also quite the world traveler, and now aren’t you training for an ultramarathon?

Cami: Yes, I’m training for an ultramarathon. I want to push my distance. I think my longest distance I’ve ever done is 35 miles, and I’d like to push to 100K, which is 61 miles, I think. Yeah. So I’m working on it.

Amanda: Well, that just sounds like the worst thing in the world to me. (laughs)

Cami: (laughs) I know. I know. It won’t happen tomorrow. I got to build up.

Amanda: But that’s wonderful. I mean, that idea of building up to these long-range goals.

Cami: Yeah, right.

Amanda: I was just talking to an author this morning that I’m working with on a different project about how sometimes, if you could see the entire route at the starting line, most of the time you wouldn’t start the race.

Cami: Yeah, that’s true.

Amanda: Right? You have to just go as far as the eye can see and then see what happens after you turn that corner.

Cami: I mean, the fact of the matter is that every race that I’ve ever run, like marathon distance, that 26.2, the last five miles I always say to myself, “Why did I do this?”

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: I always forget how hard it is, the last five miles of a race. It’s lucky that we forget that. Otherwise … it’s lucky that we forget some elements of the hard things that we go through, or we wouldn’t ever venture outside of our doors.

Amanda: We wouldn’t go back and do it again.

Cami: Yeah.

Amanda: I’m sure the voice is saying, “You’ve run a lot of miles.” (laughs)

Cami: Yeah.

Amanda: “You don’t need to keep running the last five. You’ve done so many already.”

Cami: Right. There’s a little bit of, like, what is the point? Have I not proven myself here?

Amanda: Yes, exactly.

Cami: And yet there’s that last push.

Amanda: Yes.

Cami: Which is also true in book writing.

Amanda: Yes.

Cami: You know, there’s that; you get to the point where you’re really tired.

Amanda: Yes. The medal and the publication is, you have to get through those last five miles. Absolutely.

Cami: Yes. But you’ve done the hard work and you’re a little bit like, “Really? Do I really have to proofread one more time?” (laughs) Yeah.

Amanda: (laughs) Which is probably why books have typos, even that get published, because somewhere along the line, someone said, “I can’t read this one more time.”

Cami: Yeah. “I can’t with this.”

Amanda: “I can’t. I can’t with this book anymore.” Well, I’m excited to learn that you are contemplating bringing some of these incredibly wonderful, life-transforming techniques to people beyond writers.

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: To people who, either they’ve already written their book, or writing isn’t their thing. They have some other creative avenue or they’re going through some major life transition and they need so many of these techniques that you’ve been teaching in your program.

Cami: Yeah.

Amanda: And I realize you don’t have anything set and ready to purchase yet on this new program.

Cami: It’s coming, it’s coming.

Amanda: I’m so excited about it. I wanted to get a preview to our audience. So tell us about “The Phoenix Lessons.”

Cami: Yes, I will tell you about “The Phoenix Lessons.” So, as you know, in the myth of the phoenix, the phoenix is a bird-like creature who periodically combusts into flames and falls to a pile of ashes and then rises again out of the ashes. It’s a death-and-resurrection metaphor.

Amanda: Which is all over the Bible, too, by the way.

Cami: Yes. Yes, indeed.

Amanda: Many, many places, yes.

Cami: Many, many places. I love the idea of the phoenix because I think most of us ― and certainly I see this with the writers that I’m working with ― they are writing stories where there is a crashing and a burning and then a transformation and a coming out the other side with some learning. It isn’t always a happy ending, but there is a shift or a change or a transformation in the main character, and it was hard earned. We weren’t sure, as we’re reading the book, whether or not she would get there or she would stay in the ashes. But, alas, there is some shift.

From my perspective in watching people in therapy and in working with people with their stories, this is pretty universal, that we all reach moments in life where it looks like everything is in ashes. And, in fact, sometimes it is. I mean, I myself have been through some moments where, I mean, you know, literally, when I was a child, my house burned down and we had to start over from scratch. But certainly as an adult, I’ve faced two or three different scenarios where I had to face a complete reinvention of myself, in one case due to circumstances, in another case due to my own choices. I mean, sometimes our own choices lead us to combust, you know.

In working with therapy clients over the years, what I’ve discovered is that a lot of people …. First of all, they don’t know that this is normative. I mean, maybe we all hope that we would emerge out of college at age 22 and we would have smooth sailing, and I guess there are people like that. I haven’t met any, but I imagine there are people who, even people who had really charmed, privileged early lives, and they face hard moments and diagnoses or losses, and those things can take you down. What I really want to do is I want to bring to people who are in that place or see that they’re heading into it ― because sometimes you can see it coming. You can feel yourself going, “Yeah, I can’t hold onto this life as I know it much longer. I’m going to combust.”

Amanda: I just want to throw out there even those happy moments of transition. Maybe you’re getting married. Maybe you’re going to retire.

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: Maybe you’re going to be an empty-nester. Those are major, life-transforming moments, and they’re going to happen to you whether you like it or not, right?

Cami: Right.

Amanda: I just wanted to say it’s not always tragedy, right?

Cami: Oh, no, no, no, I don’t mean to imply that it’s tragedy at all. I mean, certainly if you go from living alone into a married state or a coupled state, there are elements of who you were that burn. Not all of it. You don’t have to give up entirely who you used to be. But there are elements of who you used to be that will not be activated anymore. And it can be very confusing, disorienting. But I think what really interests me is that we hit points in our lives where we know something isn’t really working. We know that we need a shift, but we can’t put our finger on what it is.

With “The Phoenix Lessons,” what we do is we really take a look at a handful of things. First of all, the inner critics that are really talking to us and we’ve identified with them. We’ve identified with being a people-pleaser and cannot seem to really let go of that. So really want to work with those narratives, those stories inside our heads, the managing voices, and see if we can wiggle them loose, help them shift their perspective. I’m talking about them as they’re something other than us because of that externalization we talked about earlier.

And then I really want to help people look at what I call “bad bargains.” Bad bargains are agreements about who we are or about roles that we’ll play in other people’s lives that we made when we were younger before we knew the things that we know now, but we’re still living with those bargains. Like, I always have to do my duty or I always have to ― you know, people pleasing ― make other people happy. Those are bargains we’ve made with ourself at an earlier age, and sometimes they’re very, very practical, like, I should stay poor. I should always work in a job where I under-earn because there’s something virtuous about that.

“I really want to help people look at what I call ‘bad bargains.’ Bad bargains are agreements about who we are or about roles that we’ll play in other people’s lives that we made when we were younger before we knew the things that we know now, but we’re still living with those bargains. Like, I always have to do my duty or I always have to ― you know, people pleasing ― make other people happy. Those are bargains we’ve made with ourself at an earlier age, and sometimes they’re very, very practical, like, I should stay poor. I should always work in a job where I under-earn because there’s something virtuous about that.”

Or this is one that I’ve worked with a lot, that I always have to be in leadership because I’m the oldest sister of three younger brothers, and so somewhere along the line I’ve made some bargain with myself that any group that I’m a part of, I should watch for an opportunity to serve the group in leadership. You know what? That’s not a good bargain for my whole life. I mean, there are places where I want to bring that to bear and there are other places where I really should sit back and let someone else do that. It is so lovely to divorce myself from that agreement. It’s freeing. It gives me the option of doing it or not doing it.

This is what I want to do, is really help people figure out what needs to burn, and do that consciously so that they don’t accidentally blow up their lives, because a lot of us do that, hit a midlife crisis or something like that, and we just move toward that blowing things up kind of unconsciously, and all of a sudden find ourselves in the ashes. I would really love to support people in deciding what they need to burn and doing that in a controlled-burn fashion. (laughs) And then, what wants to rise?

I have a process that I’ve worked with in therapy. I use it with my writing clients. I’m pulling it together so that it’s …. There will be some journaling, no question about it. But it’s not entirely writing focused, so I can help people move through the transformation that my writers experience when they don’t necessarily want to write a book.

Amanda: But it does still sound very experiential, more than just writing. It’s not just listening to a lecture. There’s a lot of work that the individual is doing.

Cami: Yes, it’s a process that I’m going to walk people through. There will be a lecture element to it where I explain the idea behind something, and then we have activities that we’re going to do together. It’ll all be on Zoom, and it’ll be over the course of six months, which, to me, is a perfect amount of time. If you really engage in an active and conscious process, you can get a darn good transformation in six months. And whatever elements are still left or not done from the transformation that you’re looking for, you know what you need to do, so you have a good roadmap. Any less than six months and I’ve just given someone the idea of what they need to do. With a six-month process, I can walk them through what we do in our programs and what I’ve done for years in therapy, but yes, experientially, so it’s not just talking. I do think there’s a limit to just talking.

Amanda: That goes back to taking a class and then, “Oh, I get it,” and you go home and try and do it yourself, and, lo and behold, you can’t be good at it on day one.

Cami: Right.

Amanda: You know, surprise, surprise.

Cami: Yeah.

Amanda: You have to work through a lot of things. I’m really excited. Can I be in your first round?

Cami: Of course you can, yeah.

Amanda: Okay! I’m very excited about it. Okay.

Cami: Yeah, of course you can.

Amanda: So all these things that you do — and I just want to touch on one other one because it’s fascinating to me — that you and a friend run this tiny little company on the side called Wayfaring Writers.

Cami: Oh yes.

Amanda: And you take writers — and it sounds like, coming up, other artistic folks as well — to the most amazing places around the world.

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: I just came back from a trip to Valparaiso, Chile, with Wayfaring Writers, and it was my second trip, and I’ll tell you, I went on the trip with this thought: “The last trip was so transforming. I have to put that aside. I can’t expect to feel that way again.” Like, I don’t want to be let down.

Cami: Yeah, yeah.

Amanda: And I would say it was just as good, if not more so. So why do you think travel is one more of those amazing things that help us transform?

Cami: Oh, well, you’re going to get me started on travel. We may be here all day, right?

Amanda: (laughs) I just want to get that last little piece in there, because you have so many things to share.

Cami: So fun to have you on those trips too. Yeah, so travel. If you think about the phoenix, right, there’s this combusting, there’s this ashes, there’s this rising again. I think when you go on a trip and when you travel — now, I’m talking about travel, Amanda. I’m not talking about vacationing, and you know I make a distinction between these two things.

Amanda: Which I do, too, now that I’ve heard you say it.

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: Now I do, too.

Cami: Now you do.

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: I’ve got nothing against vacationing. I have nothing against going and sitting on a beach and sipping a cocktail or a mocktail and just staring into the ocean. I think that’s wonderful and lovely and restorative. But if you want to challenge your personal narratives, travel. You know, if you go to an all-inclusive sort of experience, you may or may not have a transformational experience, but, when you travel, you are most likely to do so. What I really love is this experience of getting on an airplane and flying to somewhere where you have to figure everything out. You know? Even though you go to the ATM in the airport and it just looks like the ATM at your bank, and yet you still have to study it to figure out which buttons to push. You go into the restroom and the toilet flushes from a button near the ceiling.

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: And you’re like, “Well, how the heck do I do this?” Everything needs to be figured out. It’s like your identity very quickly crashes and burns. Not entirely, because, you know, you’ve got your center. You’re still who you are.

Amanda: And you know you can go back home.

Cami: And you know you can go back home, right. And you can usually find someone who speaks English to help you navigate if you’re in a place where you don’t know the language. But truthfully, you have to let go of knowing things, and that does something to the ego. It’s scary. It’s disorienting.

Amanda: Humbling, right?

Cami: It’s humbling.

Amanda: It’s humbling, yeah.

Cami: It’s humbling to go into a grocery store and find that you are illiterate. Like, I can just think about going into a grocery store in Japan and depending on the pictures. Is this cheese or is this butter? You know.

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: I can remember coming home with what I thought was a block of cheese and it was a block of butter. It’s very humbling and it can be frustrating unless you …. It teaches you how to take yourself a little less seriously. I mean, not at first. At first, it can be real frustrating. I mean, I’m not going to lie. Early on as a traveler, there were moments where I just sat on a curb and cried. Like, I don’t know where to go or what to do. But here I am in front of you, so obviously I figured it out. And what you learn is about your resilience. You learn that, no matter how lost you are, if you take a breath and you settle down and you think outside the box and you look around you, you’re most likely to figure it out. You know? And so I think that travel is a super-fast track to transformation, if you let it be.

We took a bunch of people to Valparaiso, and we gave them the assignment of looking at the street art. This is a place famous for street murals, and we gave everybody the job to find a mural that stimulated an idea for a story. That meant that our writers that we took with us were wandering the city, going to restaurants, figuring out how to Uber in a foreign city, taking walks through neighborhoods that are winding and hard to find your way back from, and coming back with stories. Who they encountered.

You know, I took a walk there. I don’t know if I told you this, Amanda. I took a walk when I was there and got lost in this neighborhood, and as I was standing looking befuddled, pondering which direction to go, this guy came out of his house and spoke to me in Spanish. You know my Spanish is terrible. But then he spontaneously switched to French. He knew French. He’d lived in Switzerland, I think, for ten years. And I know enough French to get myself in trouble, so we corresponded in French for about five or ten minutes. He asked about me. I asked about him. He gave me directions about where to go. Well, I’ll never encounter that person again, but truthfully, he changed my life in that moment, not only because he gave me instruction about where to walk, but in the sense that I realized I could really think outside the box. I mean, I could speak a little smattering of French here in a Spanish-speaking country, and we made a real connection. I mean, I’ll never see him again. We didn’t exchange phone numbers or anything. But here were these two world travelers just touching base on what it means to be a stranger. I’ll never forget him. You know?

Amanda: Mm-hmm.

Cami: I will incorporate him into my consciousness, you know?

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. I had a fun experience. I was walking by myself, and Valparaiso is all on a hill, like if SPU was times 42 hills. (laughs) And so there’s all these crisscross and switchback streets, and even if you’re using your Google Maps on your phone, sometimes it’s hard to tell where you’re supposed to go, because it’s up and down and you’ve walked this sidewalk until it just stops at a cliff and then you have to go back the other way. So I was doing one of those and it’s not that I didn’t feel safe, but I was very much out of my own element, not totally sure if I was where I thought I was on my phone.

Cami: Right.

Amanda: There’s all these community dogs that belong to a whole street worth of neighbors, and this dog came out and looked at me as if to say, “Oh, hon. Are you lost?”

Cami: (laughs)

Amanda: And he walked with me for about three blocks, and once I was to, presumably, the end of his neighborhood, he was like, “Okay, you’re good,” and he turned around and went back home. And it was such a sweet moment.

Cami: Yeah. Aw.

Amanda: It was just so fun that this dog walking along beside me, looking up at me every so often like, “You’re okay. I’m going to get you through to the end of our neighborhood.”

Cami: Yeah, I love that.

Amanda: It was just so sweet. Then, same. I went from, “Boy, I’m not really sure where I am,” to, “I feel so safe and at home,” in a way, right?

Cami: Yeah.

Amanda: So, same. It’s like I don’t know who the dog belonged to, but I’ll never forget him.

Cami: Well, I think that is where the transformation of travel comes in, is our encounters with other human beings. Every time we encounter another human being, our narrative about ourselves just shifts a little bit. It might just be by a degree, but we are connected as human beings and we are meant to …. I think the Bible verse that says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” or one woman or one dog ….

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: There’s an interaction with others that shifts our understanding of ourselves. It can happen in little, tiny ways in travel, or it can happen in really big ways. As you know, after I left Chile with all of you, I took another two and a half weeks and traveled through other parts of South America. One day I spent with a guide in Uruguay all day long, and he translated for me. He gave me the history of every place that we went to. He really worked hard with me for about twelve hours, and it was just the two of us one on one. And on the way back to the hotel, which was a two-hour drive, I saw him yawning and I said, “Do you want me to drive?” I was really joking. It was his car. “Do you want me to drive?” And he said, “Can you drive a stick?” And I’m like, “Yeah, totally.” And so he’s like, “I do.” So he pulled into a gas station, and we switched places and I drove his car for about 45 minutes while he sat and kind of rested his eyes. I was sort of laughing and I asked him, “So how often do you take somebody on a tour and then let your client drive home?” He said, “Never. This is the first time in my life.”

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: And I’ll tell you what, that guide and I, we send messages to each other nearly daily, and I have no question in my mind that we will be friends for many years to come, and I will go back and I will see him. He told me at the end of that tour, “The next time you come, you go stay with my mother.” I mean, he volunteered his mom’s house.

Amanda: (laughs)

Cami: I guarantee you that that will happen.

Amanda: Yeah.

Cami: Like, there’s a new family for me there, you know?

Amanda: Yes.

Cami: How can you not change who you are and how you think about yourself in the world when you come back home?

Amanda: My favorite part about that is growing up, how I was always taught that iron sharpens iron, and maybe not on purpose, but I always saw that in terms of, like, long-term, deep relationships. And of course, that’s true as well. But there’s not a limit on it. There’s nothing that says you can’t be sharpened by someone that you only met for a few moments.

Cami: Right.

Amanda: Which also reminds me of something that our dear professor George Scranton, who just recently passed, how he saw Communion. He always taught that Communion is not a ceremony that we do once a month in church or however often your church does Communion. He said, “The Bible says every time you sit and eat with another human being, that is Communion, and that is holy.”

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: That when you are in communion with another human being, another created being, that is holy. The whole time their children were growing up, they had dinner as a family, and if somebody had a play practice or somebody had soccer practice, they would have dinner at 11:00 at night if that’s what it took for their family to have Communion together.

Cami: Oh, wow.

Amanda: I know so many of us that were his students were just in awe of the way he and Claire practiced that in their own lives.

Cami: Lovely.

Amanda: I really see that in what you do with the iron sharpens iron. It’s like of course, yes, it’s your family. It’s those that you spend decades of your life with. But it can also be someone that you spend five minutes in line with.

Cami: Well, I really do see every interaction that I have with other human beings as sacred. I mean, I ride the train in Seattle. I live in North Seattle and I ride it to downtown Seattle regularly, and, I mean, sure, I do sit and look at my phone a bit, but I always look around and make eye contact and say hello and feel into that sacred moment with the teenagers there with their skateboards or the homeless folks who jump on and ride so that they can get warm. I mean, I really see every interaction as sacred. And if you approach travel that way, you know, you get to have a sacred experience outside of your comfort zone, so that challenge to the ego, which I really think is what we’re here for. I think we’re here to grow and expand and deepen, and if we don’t ever get out of our comfort zones, if we don’t do the things that scare us, then we don’t get that opportunity. You know?

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah.

Cami: And people are a big part of that, those little interactions. People and animals. We can’t leave the dogs out.

Amanda: (laughs) I know how much you love your dogs.

Cami: I know. I love them.

Amanda: Well, I feel like you may have just answered our favorite last question, but let’s find out.

Cami: Okay.

Amanda: A final question we ask all our guests, but we did not start this when we launched. It came later in the process. So I don’t know that you got asked this last time. If you could have everyone in Seattle wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?

Cami: Oh, wow. I would say that I would love everyone to get a passport and to go somewhere that they’ve always wanted to go, to give themselves the gift of living out a dream and, I mean, maybe you don’t need a passport for where you’ve always wanted to go. Maybe it’s the peninsula, the rainforest. Maybe it’s a trip on the ocean. But I would say give yourself the gift of having an experience that you’ve always wanted to have, and let that experience expand you and expand your story of yourself.

Amanda: I love it. I will take it. Yes. I will tell my husband tonight, “Cami said I have to go somewhere. Sorry.”

Cami: Yep, you tell him that.

Amanda: “I know I just got back from Chile, but Cami said, so I’ve got to go.” (laughs)

Cami: You tell him. I’ll call him if you have any trouble with him.

Amanda: Oh, there you go. Okay, thanks.

Cami: (laughs)

Amanda: Oh, Cami, thank you so much for coming back and talking to us again. Every time we talk, there is so much good meat in there. I always feel like I need to listen to our conversations more than once, even though I was here for the conversation in the first place.

Cami: Oh, thank you.

Amanda: So if you are interested in the writing community, is the travel company. And if you’re looking for Phoenix Lessons, go to The Narrative Project, sign up for the newsletter, and be ready for that information as it comes out.

Cami: Yes.

Amanda: All right, Cami, thank you so much for being such a big part of the SPU Voices podcast.

Cami: Thank you, Amanda. It was great to be here.

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Walhout retires from the classroom to focus on research and writing