Happy Birthday, Hug the Universe!

Happy Birthday, Hug the Universe! :)

Looking back at the first year of a website’s life & of becoming a “blogger”

Today is the one-year anniversary of Hug the Universe’s launch, and my 37th birthday! Happy birthday to us!! It’s been a really eventful year in the life of a blog, so let’s take a look back at some of what’s been accomplished. :)

An idea taps Ryan on the shoulder

The idea for this blog came out of my desire to connect with an adult audience and build awareness of my work in support of the children’s books I want to create and release. A few years earlier, I had developed and manufactured a children’s product line called the OMG Friends, but I ran face-first into the reality of how difficult it is to launch something without an already established base of fans. But that's another story. 

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(To learn more about the OMG Friends, view this project on my design portfolio site)

Mo Willems does a good job of summing up one of my reasons for wanting to create children’s books and products:

A good picture book is a child’s friend, and for some kids it can be their only friend. So I want to make sure that every time I’m making a book, I am making a very good friend for someone. –Mo Willems

I am really moved when I think about the immeasurable impact an early positive lesson or example can have on a child’s life. I never had any healthy guidance or support when I was growing up and going through some very difficult things, but out of sheer will and determination (and a ton of struggle and pain), I overcame the damage. And like a lot of other people who’ve experienced and overcome profound hardships, I feel very driven to do what I can to share knowledge and perspectives that might help others move through their own difficulties with grace—or to avoid them altogether (where possible). So, I want to share some of what I’ve learned while also creating cute, funny, and delightful characters, stories, and experiences.

This is a page out of my journal from the period leading up to the creation and launch of Hug the Universe. I did a lot of writing to clarify my vision and intention for the larger context this project is a part of.

"UNICORN BABY!" was apparently a really important part of the plan.

"UNICORN BABY!" was apparently a really important part of the plan.

Even though my inspiration for this blog was rooted in the many challenges I’ve overcome, I thought I’d just share some interesting philosophical ideas and thoughts about personal growth and empowerment, and do so without really revealing myself and what I’ve gone through. I don’t want to be seen as a defective person or someone who is damaged goods. But it was a huge nightmare trying to find ways to dance around my story. The lessons that I wanted to share don’t really make sense out of context, and I wound up “telling” more than “showing” in my early writing. So I decided to open up about my family, my health issues, and my upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witness cult. 

It’s been really scary to share what I’ve revealed in my writing so far. The project went from “it’ll be fun to share ideas and perspective while safely staying hidden” to “strap in, buddy! It’s time to dig back into the septic tank you call your ‘past’ and create meaning and increased understanding out of all that ugliness back there!”

Oooook, great. I’m assuming the dubiousness on my face here is in response to that: 

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So, on one hand, this year has been a process of wrapping my head around what’s involved in the craft of writing. But on the other hand, it’s required pushing myself out of a series of concentric closets. This has required an ongoing practice of soul-searching, and has been accompanied by frequent doubt and very frequent thoughts of “WTF AM I DOING?!!?!?!? AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” But, I had articulated a fairly clear vision of my “why” for beginning this journey, and even though it really scared me, if I was going to achieve and experience something new, I had to try something new. 

Instead of just believing that my assumptions about things are accurate, it's important to me to confirm (or disprove) those assumptions to see what actually happens. So, sharing this stuff was a very conscious experiment of basically “well, carrying around these secrets really sucks, and I’m fairly miserable right now anyway—so what’s the worst that can happen if I share what I’ve experienced and am working to overcome? I dunno! I think I’ll write a bunch of very involved and revealing stories and post them publicly on the internet and see what happens!”

I even developed keywords to guide this experiment and the creation of this brand, website, and my writing.

The Website Launches!

I spent six months working on everything before Hug the Universe launched, and then it went live with one post. That post gave an overview of what I wanted to create, featured a couple fun illustrations, and introduced Ryan-the-writer to the world. And with the support of my friends, word started to spread.

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The couple of posts that followed this were definitely still in the “I can do this without revealing much about myself” camp. I hadn’t found anything approaching my “voice” yet, and didn’t really understand the importance and potential of candid storytelling. But I’d soon learn that honest sharing opens up lines of communication that couldn’t otherwise exist, and creates the possibility for deeper understandings and meaningful connections. 

The first really big thing that I was afraid to talk about was my father. But it was that special sort of fear that I’ve learned is actually life saying “this is something you need to do to grow, buddy.” 

Uuuuuuuuuuuuugh… so I began revisiting a lot of really painful periods of my life that contain mountains of ugliness, with the intention of telling the world about them. FUN!

It initiated a mini personal crisis as I started sorting through the sticky gooey pool of poop that is my knowledge of and experiences with my father, but I was determined to do the work. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and revised and revised and revised and revised, and kinda drove my friend Sheila (who came on board as my editor) crazy (because it was a really long and difficult process for me)… but it eventually was completed, and then I reluctantly hit “publish,” and then for some reason started marketing the damn thing on Facebook, Twitter, and my mailing list. 

At that point I probably put my computer and phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode because I was nervous about the response. But when I built up the courage to go back online, I saw that people were reaching out and expressing gratitude for my candidly sharing these very difficult things. They found it really valuable. 

 

This represents one of the most meaningful things for me personally: the revelation that sharing these things about myself doesn’t result in shunning and abandonment, but actually creates space for empathy and meaningful connections. Whoa. 

And through the process of digging back into this stuff and writing about it, I’ve come to terms with it to a degree I didn’t realize was possible. It’s given me powerful insights into who I am and my innate human ability to create and decide the meaning I’m going to ascribe to the events I witness and experience, and now I feel a degree of peace and completion with things that have been nipping at my heels for many years. I feel a sense of clarity and acceptance regarding some things I never thought I’d be anything but haunted by.

After releasing the post about my father, I had family members that I literally had forgotten existed reach out to me and express their love and their regret for not knowing sooner what was happening to me. My writing and openness has also connected me with audiences that I never considered going into this (e.g., other people who have been impacted by Jehovah’s Witnesses and their very damaging beliefs and practices). Here are just a few of the comments I received when I shared this article with a Facebook group for recovering Jehovah’s Witnesses:

The Writing Process

My favorite part of blogging is publishing a finished piece. Releasing the fruits of a long process and a lot of hard work is like opening the doors to an auditorium and inviting people in to hear the symphony I’ve prepared for them. Its creation involved immense amounts of writing, trimming, throwing things out, exploring new directions and potential storylines that reveal themselves, and creating original illustrations and photography to support the intended message and experience I want to share. 

When I first started writing, Sheila (my editor) compared my process to how a sculptor begins with a massive block of marble and chips away to find the statue inside. I would begin with a stream-of-consciousness brain-dump that would result in a galaxy of possible directions (and oftentimes buckets full of drivel), and then would revise and revise and revise and revise to distill it to something engaging and coherent. This was a very time-consuming and inefficient method, but I learned a lot from it. 

“Oh, hi, 37,000 potential stories that I’m trying to weave into one coherent 1,500 word narrative!”

“Oh, hi, 37,000 potential stories that I’m trying to weave into one coherent 1,500 word narrative!”

My approach evolved into a more strategic process that sort of resembles writing a song. Instead of having every instrument play all the notes at once and looking for a melody in the ruckus, I identify the key I want to write in, determine the appropriate tempo, set up the drum beats, and then determine the instruments that best communicate the intended affect.

These are the “beats” representing the structure used for the post I wrote about my father (My Father Showed Me Most of What I Know About the Nature of Evil) Click image to enlarge

These are the “beats” representing the structure used for the post I wrote about my father
(My Father Showed Me Most of What I Know About the Nature of Evil)

Click image to enlarge

These are the “beats” representing the structure used for the post I wrote about my mother (The Burden of Being Mom’s “Little Hero”) Click image to enlarge

These are the “beats” representing the structure used for the post I wrote about my mother
(The Burden of Being Mom’s “Little Hero”)

Click image to enlarge

Regardless of approach, writing with clarity and the intention to be engaging is still a very involved process. 

In addition to the writing part, there’s also the matter of images and illustrations. As a professional designer, I’ve really familiarized myself with the process of taking complex ideas and discovering ways to represent them that are beautiful, thoughtful, and communicate the desired message. I also love love love creating cute things, so I'm happy when illustrations are appropriate to what I’m writing. 

Initial sketches for several illustrations that have appeared in different posts. 

Initial sketches for several illustrations that have appeared in different posts. 

Illustration from my inaugural post

Illustration from my inaugural post

Illustration from my post about failure

Illustration from my post about failure

Tracking progress

The whole point of this website is to connect with people. And while the analytics numbers below would likely be laughable to someone comparing them to the Huffington Post or Kim Kardashian’s readership, these analytics are quite moving and meaningful to me: 

Team member additions

Another thing I hadn’t thought of when starting this project was the possibility of it becoming a group effort. Over the course of this first year, three people have been added to the Hug the Universe team, and I’m so grateful for everything they do. In case you haven’t seen the about page recently, let me introduce you to them!

Sheila Ashdown Editor & Potato That Won't Quit

Sheila Ashdown
Editor & Potato That Won't Quit

Eric Burlingame Human Behavior Expert & Consciousness Researcher

Eric Burlingame
Human Behavior Expert & Consciousness Researcher

Bob from Accounting He's from accounting

Bob from Accounting
He's from accounting

Sheila Ashdown joined the team as Hug the Universe’s official editor; Eric Burlingame became a contributor to some posts in the capacity of brilliant human behavior expert and consciousness researcher; and Bob sometimes takes a break from crunching numbers to chime in with skepticism and questions about complex topics. 

SO MANY CATS!!! 

Hanging out with and snuggling cats has also been a big part of this first year of Hug the Universe (ok, that’s just part of my life, but if I relate it to this website I can share a bunch of cat photos here).

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Uhh… is this thing on?

Another thing I was rather uncomfortable sharing at the outset of this project is my interest in consciousness research. It’s something I’ve studied for many years, but most people are dismissive of it and/or don’t believe it’s real. I was really hoping that my series of interviews with Eric Burlingame and the articles I wrote about David R. Hawkins’ work would start conversations and open people up to the reality of objectively confirmable truths, but it’s been mostly crickets. 

I’ve found this frustrating and disappointing. There seems to be a disconnect with a lot of my friends who otherwise consider me an intelligent and thoughtful person, where they kinda roll their eyes and ignore this part of me as if I’m just believing silly stuff. I guess the topic is sort of “weird,” but only in that it’s a relatively new discovery and unfamiliar to most. But lack of familiarity doesn’t make something untrue. These discoveries literally change everything, and if/when people start paying attention en masse, it’s going to be a completely different world.

And this is where Eric’s contributions to this project come in. He is a consciousness researcher whose pioneering work is expanding our understandings of the phenomenon at the core of this field, and I want to help spread awareness of what he’s doing and the reality of objectively identifiable Truths.

But widespread paradigm shifts don’t occur frequently or over night. I ain’t givin’ up, though. :)

The great yogurt incident of 2016

Another thing that happened is that I accidentally threw yogurt on Sheila.

 
 

And what do you do when life (or Ryan) throws yogurt on you? You dance. 

A place for patrons

A few months ago I also created and launched a Patreon page for Hug the Universe where people can support my work and get really neat patron-only perks. Four pioneering patrons are already helping the expansion of this website and my work! It makes a huge difference and is deeply appreciated. 

If you’ve enjoyed my work and would like to join them (which I’d be thrilled about), head over to my Patreon page to learn more! You can support Hug the Universe with as little as $1 a month. 

What’s to come

In many ways, this first year has been foundation building. While part of me wishes that I had a lot more posts to show for a year’s worth of work, much of what I’ve explored so far has involved the most difficult topics for me broach. And it’s been part of an intentional “foundation”-laying that supports what’s to come. 

There are still two “big ones” that I have to talk about. Two of the posts (among several) that I’m working on right now discuss being raised in the Jehovah’s Witness cult, and talking about the past 10 years I’ve spent fighting to recover from Parkinson’s Disease (no, it’s not incurable or even necessarily degenerative, but omg does it suck—so much).

Then that’s it! The foundation will be laid! Many more great things are in the works from posts to interviews to comics to products. I have the beginnings of a book in the works (for adults), and a couple of books and products for children that I’m starting to work on.

Thank you so much for reading along with this adventure and being a part of Hug the Universe. It means the world to me, and I couldn’t do this without you (or at least I wouldn’t want to).

Until next time, be kind to yourself, to each other, and venture fearlessly into the awesomeness that is your life.