Jesica Hanley Vega

Sing Your Song

On Editing: On The Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character


A few weeks ago, I reread a series of online newspaper columns I’d written in 2011. The writing was clear, informative and grammatically sound, but it was also boring as shit.

Around the same time, I picked up a copy of “To Show and To Tell” by Phillip Lopate*. In this book, dedicated to the craft of “literary nonfiction,” Lopate writes that nonfiction authors must not shy away from revealing their authentic selves, regardless of how flawed, weird, or even dull, they believe themselves to be. Ultimately, he writes, even when the subject is not memoir, it’s the writer’s unique perspective, their “character,” that makes their work engaging.

Lopate had me see that, in too completely concealing my origins and point of view — a Puerto Rican Jew from the Bronx, a person-of-color passing as white, perpetually angry about abuses of power, and equally passionate about the possibility of a just world — I’d omitted aspects of myself that might have made my articles compelling, rather than just informative.

In contrast, in “Between The World and Me,**”  Ta-Nahesi Coates’ anger, defiant atheism, confusion and despair inform every page, as do his tender love for his son and his grief for an old friend. He is frank about childhood fears, his inability to master the streets, and the fact that he cannot identify the answer to racism in the United States, only the problem, and the tragedy, that it is.

But through a lens of what might be regarded as imperfection, an intellectually persuasive and emotionally forceful human being emerges. It is no accident that the book has become a phenomenon and that, despite insisting on his own limitations, Coates — or rather, the narrative “character” he created – has become a prophet to many.

This is why editing is about so much more than just debugging and polishing your grammar, syntax and structure. It’s also about enhancing your voice so that readers not only acquire a new understanding of your subject, but also gain a greater understanding of who you are, as a writer and a human being.

*Lopate, Phillip. “On The Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character.” To Show and To Tell, The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. New York: Free Press, 2013.

** Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. (edited by Christopher Jackson, yay!)

Almost Fourteen Years Ago…


I had a baby. But instead of the bliss and possibility I’d been promised, I found a darkness I’d never imagined. Post-partum depression left me confused, angry and unable to imagine a positive future. I tried to keep it all together, but the word “overwhelmed” doesn’t begin to express the devastation and loss I felt. Then I hit rock-bottom…and a wise teacher recommended I reconnect with my intuition. I started reading cards, first for myself and then for others, and slowly began rebuilding my perspective and my life…

In the beginning, every reading pointed to grief and loss, the very things I’d been trying to overcme. But over time, and with the help of a caring therapist, I discovered that feeling grief and loss didn’t mean they would take over my life forever. Indeed, the opposite was true. Allowing for those dark emotions – surrendering to them but not wallowing in them – allowed them to pass. And joy entered my life again.

When we feel overwhelmed, we assume that fixing the problem, answering the question, and eliminating the obstacle will make us feel better. But the truth is that “feeling better” starts from just “feeling.” And while we may think we’re “feeling” while we stress out, complain and tell our stories, the truth is that really “feeling” requires an environment of safety and acceptance not easily accessible in everyday life.

Very often people cry when I read their cards. I cry! A reading provides that environment – whether it’s for 15 minutes or an hour – where you can feel, be present and let things be. It’s an opportunity for admitting what’s really going on and letting your own intuitions emerge. Sometimes, it turns out, there is  something to do. But just as often, it turns out that things aren’t as confusing as they seem and the overwhelm seems to fix itself.

Readings are not for everyone. Sitting with me requires an open mind, a commitment to growth and at least a consideration that there’s something bigger and more important than you – whether you call it your higher powergod, spirit, the universe or the tao.  Because, aside from developing my intuition, the cards have taught me that there are things outside our control and our knowledge, and that, rather than that being something to overcome, the unknowable can be a source of wonder, joy and even healing.

Sing Your Song

cocky-winter-sparrowAs I prepared to write today, I looked up from my keyboard and saw a sparrow in the rhododendron outside my window. As I often do, I immediately dug into the symbolism associated with the animal and this is what I found:

Although small, the sparrow animal totem is powerful and productive. It’s persistence and integrity show us that we do not have to be big to make a difference. We also do not need to have the biggest and best things in order for our voices to be heard.

The sparrow reflects the self-worth that we should feel for ourselves regardless of external factors. This energy and passion for ourselves is within each of our hearts somewhere, waiting to be awakened. These little songbirds want us to sing our soul’s own song, just as they do.

When a sparrow flits into your life, it is imploring you to recognize your own self-worth. Although tiny, this creature can act as a massive source of empowerment. Do not underestimate yourself and your abilities. Instead, puff your chest up full of energy and pride, sing your own tune and march to the beat of your own drum.

Sparrows also…care deeply for their community and see the benefits of working together for common causes. 

That sparrow damn near wrote this post for me.

There’s no question that external factors have been taking a toll on my self-worth lately. I’m a single parent, child support payments have been spotty and, even though I make it through every month, I’m not always sure how I’m going to do it. I’ve been persistent in seeking regular work but have been consistently ignored and rejected. I often beat myself up for not being more of something, better at something else, or just different.

And yet as the sparrow was there to remind me… energy and passion are awake in my life, and I don’t need to be the biggest or the best to make a difference.

The sparrow reminds me that I’m working with one community (Indivisible Tacoma) to advance a common cause, and co-creating another around the kitchen table with my housemate, our friends and our families. It acknowledges me for supporting artists all over the country through readings and conversation, and working with authors writing about personal growth and religious leadership.

And though I often find it challenging these days to  puff my chest up full of energy and pride, sing my own tune and march to the beat of my own drum, that is exactly what the sparrow wants for me.

It takes an enormous amount of faith, courage and support to march to the beat of one’s own drum. It requires that you face dissenting voices from society, family and the inside of your own head. But when the drumbeat of society is as toxic, dysfunctional, disconnected and fearful as it is now, your authentic drum is exactly what is needed.

And just as the sparrow is there for me, I am here for you.


What’s In A Name


2016 was a year of enormous change in my life. There was relationship change, professional change, housing change and, perhaps most obvious of all, a name change. After more than 13 years as Jesica Davis, in 2016 I became Jesica Hanley Vega.

While I was creating a fresh start in taking a new name, I also felt it was important to honor where I’ve come from. So  I chose to acknowledge women on both sides of my family – my paternal great grandmother Anna Rose Hanley, and my maternal grandmother Carmen Vega.

In doing so, I also sought to acknowledge the diversity of my ancestry —  to claim the Irish Hanley clan as well as la familia Vega from Puerto Rico (and originally, Spain). Though my Goldberg, Ortega and Volk lineages were omitted in the process, these names are still written in my heart, if not on my driver’s license.

So what’s in a name? We shall see.  Even though the change was approved on August 5, this process of change – like all such processes – had been a gradual one. For the time being, my domain name will remain the same and, since I’ve got hundreds of beautifully designed business cards with the old name, so will my card and the purpose it declares:

Providing radical new perspectives on challenges and dilemmas, and powerful openings for professional and personal transformation.

What’s Going On? v.2016

Owens Beach, WA. February 2, 2016

Though it seemed as if 2015 was ending on a high note, in reality, the year ended in a heaving crescendo of disappointment and upset. In a very short time I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling as if nothing made sense. In my best moments, I called it humbling; in my worst, I described myself as crushed, bitch slapped and ground to dust.

I never cried so much.

But just as deepest winter is finally giving way to that point when the first signs of spring tentatively emerge (in the Gaelic pagan traditions, it’s known as Imbolc) I may now be glimpsing a new season in my own life: a season of simplicity, gratitude and a heightened awareness of what really matters in my life.

For the moment at least, I’ve swept all grand plans to the side: an unfinished book project lies safely in its folder, all retreats are off the calendar, and all speaking engagements suspended. The mantra of “writing, teaching, speaking” which powerfully called me forward in 2015 has been replaced by “I want a job.”

I want a paycheck, I want to show up and make a difference in people’s lives, and I want to go home and enjoy my family. I want to belong, I want to be valued and, most importantly, I want to be compensated.

I still want to read cards. I still want to provide sacred space. I still want to teach and I still want to listen. But I’ve surrendered to the fact that the struggle to support my family exclusively through those pursuits put too much strain on the gifts that made them possible in the first place.

The monthly concern about paying bills, meeting unexpected expenses and simply taking good care of my children finally took its toll. And though I may seem to possess a boundless capacity to handle stress, uncertainty and a shortage of cash, those very qualities likely had me struggle far longer than I might have otherwise. Because that’s how it is with gifts sometimes; they bite us in the ass.

So I’ve circled some wagons and given thanks that I have my health and my life, two beautiful children and a husband who loves me. I’ve given thanks for my education, my resources and my ability to communicate. And I’ve given thanks that I still experience great joy reading cards, being there when people seek connection to their own spirits and providing sacred space when they need to hear their hearts. And I’ve given thanks for the new opportunities coming my way, whatever they are, and the new adventures life has in store.


5 Life Lessons from 2015

Handmade ornaments celebrating peace from our most recent workshop at Retreats With Heart.

Feeling good feels good. I experimented a lot this year with simply feeling good. Regardless of circumstance, I made an effort to find a good feeling whenever I could (or as Abraham Hicks calls it “a better feeling thought”).

The biggest surprise was learning how much better it felt to admit I felt crappy. In the past, I’d tried to force myself to feel better in challenging moments, but this year I discovered the grace in simply saying “I feel like crap.”

And very often, when I felt that way, I would sit down on my sofa and not get up until I felt better. Just sit. Not meditate. Not read. Not check my phone. Just sit. And it felt really good. And I was a much nicer person to my kids and my husband too.

Doing what frightens me makes me feel alive. This year was full of things that frightened me; I led my first workshops, did my first public speaking, crowd-funded and attended The Hive Global Leaders Program , admitted I wanted a divorce in couples’ counseling (we later reconciled) and quit consuming espresso, pasta, bread and sugar (mostly). Each one of these forced me to transcend the “me” I knew and become someone new. While it was terrifying to step into the unknown – socially, personally, and dietarily – each leap released an energy, a wildness and a wisdom that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. I got to know myself on a deeper level and it was exhilarating.

Life is much easier when I don’t take things personally. That guy who wanted his money back when he didn’t like my talk? The friend who decided she no longer wanted me in her life? The family member with negative opinions about how I’ve lived my life? In the past, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to prove myself to dissenters and win back those I’d offended. But this year I finally accepted that people are going to do what they’re going to do and think what they’re going to think – because they have their own lives to lead, and their own stories to tell.

Relationships will end and endeavors will fail, and to take it all personally is to try way too hard to be the center of a universe in which I am only one part. Ultimately, it’s a relief knowing I can’t control it all and it’s made me even more grateful for what I have.

Life is even easier when I stop trying to improve, help, heal and otherwise make a difference in people’s lives. Co-dependent much? Maybe just a little. As a sensitive, caring person, it’s easy to feel responsible for others’ problems. Whether I’ve felt like I caused them, or just had the solutions that would ease them, I expended a lot of energy thinking, talking and strategizing about other people’s lives. But once I stopped, wow, it was like being relieved of a fifty pound weight. It’s still tempting, when someone is struggling or feels hurt, to turn myself inside out, beat myself up and do whatever it takes to make it right. But I’ve learned the best path is to take what responsibility is mine and give others the gift of their own.

I’m human. Of course, of course, of course, we’re all human. But there’s nothing like getting knocked down a few notches to remind me (see numbers 2 and 3) how human I am. Whether my ego is dominating me with an inflated sense of my own worth, or berating me for not being good enough, my ego has a hard time accepting who I truly am.

I am gifted in some ways, flawed in others; I can be wonderful and I can be insensitive. Just like all human beings, I am not only one thing.

A large part of becoming a loving, compassionate human being is accepting my shadow without believing it dims my light, because only then can I  accept the humanity of others. And I’ve come a long way in accepting others humanity this year as well: my kids’, my family’s, my friends and most of all, my dear and very human husband.

What Does It Mean To Be Authentic?

IMG_9575You wouldn’t believe what’s gone down in the last few weeks.

Each single thing was stressful enough, but together they comprised a perfect storm that had me asking tough questions touching on what I do, the purpose of my work and, who I’m supposed to serve.

In pursuit of an answer, I sought out the support of a woman who’d participated in one of my recent workshops. She was in marketing for many years, and I thought she’d be able to offer valuable insight on how to present myself in a way that was both satisfying to me and compelling to my audience. She said a lot of things, but what stood out most was “authenticity.” She didn’t say that I was authentic, though, rather she said that “people are really into authenticity right now.”

At first, her statement struck me as ridiculous because it was like saying “people are really into breathing right now.” It seemed to suggest that authenticity is not only a trend, but that people will inevitably tire of it. And yet, it also made me think… Am I “authentic”? And what does “authenticity” really mean?

In continuing my inquiry, I asked a new client what she got from our time together. At first she said “clarity.” But then she added that it went deeper than that. It was more like discovery, she said, or even an archaeological excavation: as if there had been something inside her, but that it had been covered by dirt and rock. Our work felt like the process of removing debris, so that she could finally unearth a treasure that had been within her the whole time.

This, in fact, is a large part of what I think “authenticity” is. It’s a process of coming forward honestly and then, with humility and a sense of discovery, removing layers to reveal something normally left under the surface.

The reason it seemed so hilarious that authenticity could be a fad is that there’s no one way it looks, and it’s not something you can fake or buy cheaply. Authenticity is different for every person and, when it’s the real thing,  inherently human, timeless, and valuable. It is, in fact, the reason great art endures, for some truths about being human simply never change.

And yet, if authenticity is in vogue, that can only be a good thing. Rather than a fad, perhaps it reflects a permanent dissatisfaction with artifice and a sign that society’s desires are evolving in a positive direction.

I realize that this is why, for so long, I found it difficult to characterize my clientele. When I look back, many of my clients seem to have very little in common. But now I can see that, rather than sharing gender, age, education or ethnicity, they share certain values: foremost among them, authenticity.

People seek me out because they want to know themselves better and live more authentic lives. They also share a certain openness, a sense of discovery, and a desire to love and accept themselves and others. They find relief in uncovering previously hidden truths and they value peace. Whether we work together on a long-term basis, or only once, they find these things in our interactions. And if that’s what I have to offer the world, I’m proud and humbled.

On the one hand, this gives me the courage to know I can show up and be who I need to be without feeling like I have to put on a show, be someone I’m not or fulfill a trend. On the other, it feels like a whole new ball game, as if I can finally stop trying to put on a show and being someone that I’m not. As if, perhaps, it’s already enough to just be myself.

Growing Through Paradox

Life growing from a dead thing.

This week’s podcast is about confronting the paradoxes in our lives: not through running away, numbing ourselves or hiding our heads in the sand, but through opening our hearts and expanding our awareness.

From watching my children develop, I’ve observed that there are few things as painful to the human psyche as a contradiction. Knowing something is true and that it’s opposite is also true can cause so much mental anguish, the effect is almost physical.

Who hasn’t wanted to scream in frustration when they’ve wanted two things equally? Or hated the person you love? Or hated yourself because of two seemingly incompatible qualities or drives?

Contradictions and paradox are an inevitable part of life, but when we run away from them, we run away from something that has the power to reveal deeper aspects of our realities and ourselves.

The trick is that our ordinary minds have no capacity for such revelations. Living in a physical world, our minds are accustomed to things being one way and not another. Confronting things that express both/and, rather than either/or, can really blow our gaskets.

And yet,  contemplation – which cultivates a state in which we are lovingly engaged with the focus of our attention – can train us to see with a deeper wisdom beyond the usual five senses. It can  teach us to approach contradictions with peace, compassion and acceptance, rather than reactivity and despair.

The more I focus on the topic of contemplation, the more I realize how much it can help us all during these very stressful times, and the more I realize how much it’s given me.


My First Talk And My First Podcast

IMG_9667Last week, I gave my very first talk at Tacoma’s Northwest Float Center and it was a wonderful, if nerve-wracking, experience. As much as I’ve always loved speaking in front of groups, it was my first time speaking uninterrupted for 25 minutes; but I had a beautiful, receptive audience and the setting was perfect.

For a few months, I’d been looking for the a location to launch this new aspect of my work. As soon as I walked into Northwest Float, I knew it was the place. Not only is it a quiet, naturally contemplative space, it is free of the spiritual and religious iconography associated with churches, yoga studios and meditation centers.  While my own home has its share of Native American figurines, Buddhas, Hindu gods and Christian mystics, my work explicitly advocates what is possible apart from preexisting belief systems and spiritual traditions.  As I state in my talk, because we can bring contemplation to almost anything we do, it is as much about being human as it is about being spiritual. In fact, it is a wonderful practice for both accepting our humanity with all its “flaws” and “imperfections” as well as nurturing a sense of spiritual awe and unity.

To hear the complete talk, click on the following link and, please, let me know what you think: Download this episode (right click and save)

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