Billie Fans in Chicago by Liz Brown

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Before I headed from Lincoln Square to United Center on Sunday, I walked to a “hipster” coffee shop. Well, it was hipster enough to spin vinyl and have a local gentleman loudly spouting about eclectic genres and Elton John, but not so hipster it had traditional cappuccinos. After ordering, I chose a spot by the window, conveniently close to an outlet and light—both necessities on the road.

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I spent the next few minutes journaling, re-centering, and praying. I hadn’t been this excited or nervous for a show in a long time. Arenas are always a little chaotic and that nervous energy in my stomach, combined with the beautiful nostalgia of returning to an old workplace, topped off with a generous portion of excitement, made me almost tear up several times that evening.

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So I drank my non-traditional, still-hipster cappuccino, charged my phone and prayed. I asked God to show me how he would like me to show up in the spaces I would be in that evening. I asked him how best I could love the people around me. How I can work well, be present, and enter into both my emotions and those of the people around me. I don’t say this to be weird and religious-y or even to sound like a good person—honestly I rarely pray like this, and I should more. I’m still learning and I’m sharing this only to be honest.

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As I wrote, these words came to me: “Set your phone down. It’s all in the eyes. Be ready to hold out your hand—both to accept and to help. We are all part of this big cosmic miracle. You are a miracle. I am a miracle. We are all miracles—and especially together.” And let me tell you: the night did feel like a miracle.

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I packed up my book and journal and phone charger, slid my empty cup onto the counter, and walked back the 16 minutes back to my car. I left a little early because I anticipated a huge line and wanted to get some photos of it. As you might recall from the LANY shows I’ve shot, those moments of human connection are often my favorite part.

(Also this next succession of photos is the bridge of “Copycat.” Insane.)

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I wandered up and down the line of hundreds of (mostly) teens (and a smattering of parents and “older” folks like me), occasionally asking to take a photo of their street style, or talking to them about their signs and how long they’d been waiting. I’ve been a music photographer for 10 years and have never seen so many people wearing an artist’s merch before the doors even open. They were head-to-toe in Blohsh and their signs were covered in photos and inside jokes from Billie. Some even had drawn portraits. One drew a photo of Dwight Schrute.

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Even inside, I talked to fans against the barricade who had lined up before sunrise. Others had been waiting outside for 3 days. They were sweet, honest, and kind, and waited patiently as the generous security officers ran around handing out free water.

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Between sets, I had a seat (thank you, Chris), which was relatively close to the front, so I could see the majority of the 18 thousand (mostly) teens as I stood in section 121. How incredible it is, I thought, that 18 thousand people came to see Billie. How incredible is it that she has come from composing unheard-of songs in her bedroom to performing on a levitating bed stage in front of thousands in less than 2 years. Her journey is incredible.

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And just as soon as that thought came, so did another: everyone else in this room, the other 17,999, took a journey to get here, too. They’ve had experiences and conversations, lonely nights and heartbreak, friendships and summer nights, roadtrips and ubers and L rides, that have taken them to this moment, in this room, all lit up and magical and fleeting.

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Those stories are important, too. Those journeys are important, too. Your journey is important, too. You’re not small just because you’re not on a stage. You’re still a miracle. Remember what I learned earlier? We are magic. We are miracles. The fact that you are still alive through all the hard days you’ve experienced: that is a miracle. You are strong. Being a teenager is hella hard. It was 10 years ago when I was a teen and it’s not gotten any easier. You are brave. The fact that you’re with friends and you’ve put in the hard work to develop relationships: that’s a miracles. Other humans are miracles. The fact that despite those hard days you are showing up and smiling and laughing and dancing: that is a miracle. The way your generation desires authenticity and honesty more than anything: that is a miracle and it inspires me so much. I love that you don’t filter your photos and you wear tennis shoes and say what you mean. I love how passionate and genuine you are. You are all miracles; I mean it. You might not believe it today, but I hope you do someday.

You aren’t small. You aren’t unseen. And you don’t have to be silent; that room shook with 17,999 of your voices and I hope you see how powerful that is. (You can change the world.) I hope you slow down for sunsets and keep dancing and love the things you love with your whole freaking hearts. I hope you find the balance between grief and joy and never let it make you bitter. I hope you know that there is a space in this world for exactly who you are and you don’t have to be anyone else to fit into that space. I hope you know that you’re needed. I hope you know that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn and grow. I hope you drink lots of ice coffee and savor every moment. You’re stronger than you think and the world is yours to change. Your voice is strong and important. I believe in you.

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I don’t know what your journey was that brought you to that room. Maybe it was easy and fun or maybe you cried a lot (I’ve cried a lot this year, too). Maybe you’ve lived through a breakup or divorce or some other loss that tried to carve you away from the inside out. But you made it through those days (I’m proud of you) and I hope yesterday was a reminder that even if today is hard again, there will be good days, too. You’ll make it through. It gets better. I believe in you.

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P.S. I’m the big sister to a teenager in my real life, and y’all at shows feel like my concert little siblings. If you are at a show and you don’t feel safe (especially if security isn’t helping), find me. You don’t deserve to feel unsafe or be harassed or anything like that. I hope that never happens to any of you, but know, if anyone pulls any nonsense with any of my little concert sibs, I’ll go full Liam Neeson on them. Y’all are gems and you deserve to be safe and happy. Keep dancing, keep singing literally every word to every Billie song, keep painting and drawing and savoring the miracle of being human and being alive today. You got this.

Brand New by Liz Brown

Three years ago in January, I chased a dream to Colorado. I drove through Kansas in unseasonably warm weather with the windows down, listening to Needtobreathe on repeat. I made new friends and visited old ones and stopped to sight see. But at the end of the journey, every door to my dream closed. I felt lost and confused. I couldn’t stay where I was but I didn’t know how to move forward. So I took an office job. It felt like a defeat—a blow to my pride and independence.

I sat in a cubicle from 7:25am to 4pm and I was incredibly ungifted at my job. (One thing I learned through the experience is I hadn’t often tried—and stuck with—things I’m not good at.) I wasn’t used to this failure and I wasn’t used to a cubicle and I wasn’t used to not being allowed to talk to anyone all day.

It was so easy to slip into monotony and discouragement. So every day I picked up my phone and used my lunch break as a fight for joy. I sought to find one thing every day that was beautiful to take a photo of. It may be as simple as light on a wall. The thing is: you can find beauty anywhere if you’re looking. I wrote a blog post about loving the skies you’re under, when those skies are ceiling tiles.

On my lunch breaks I sometimes walked three blocks, rented a bike, biked across downtown, bought an iced latte from someone who knew my name, and biked and walked back. It took 35 minutes exactly. That was how lonely I was. I’d spend $12 on my lunch break for a bike ride, a latte, and human connection.

The other thing I did on my lunch break is dance. The cool thing about office jobs is they are often connected to parking garages, which happen to be empty of humans and amazing for midday dancing. I’d kick of my shoes, put on Ben Rector’s “Brand New” and dance my booty off. I chased joy every day. While I never grew to love my job, I look back on those lunch breaks with joy and fondness. They were only 35 minutes but used intentionally, they changed me and my outlook.

Today, almost exactly three years later (35 months), I find myself again a little lost and lonely and wondering why my dreams keep disappearing. I don’t know where to go next or what’s ahead. But I have bare feet and an open road. I have an iced mocha and I’m going to see Ben Rector and dance my booty off.

Just like three years ago, I’m not going to wait until it’s good to chase light and dance. I am going to dance and look for light on dark days until the joy comes. I don’t know what’s ahead but I’m going to meet it dancing. I will find light in the walls and sunburns on my shoulders and pavement under my bare feet. I will dance before the joy comes, until the miracle comes, no matter what comes my way. In the words of queen Maggie Rogers, “I’ll be dancing at the end of the day.”

I wrote this Saturday, but the photo is from spring 2016. My hair had changed over the last three years and I’d like to think my heart has changed, too—and I hope my heart has, too.

Keep dancing,

Liz

Rebuild by Liz Brown

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Rebuild. 

I was going to get a different tattoo this weekend. I had a plan. But on Thursday decided to get this word instead. I knew it with a surety that my whimsical Enneagram 4 self barely ever experiences. I knew the word I wanted and I knew where I wanted it. I was calm and I was sure. But I didn't really know why that word was meant for me. It had come up a few times in my life over the past few months, but that was about it. It hadn't changed my life or anything--yet. 

After getting the word on my arm, I met up with my friend Lauren to go to a worship night. I still really didn’t know why I’d gotten the word, only that it was supposed to be there.

Then that night, in the middle of an anxiety battle, the words were sung over me, with me, in me: “I will build my life upon Your love; it is a firm foundation. I will put my trust in You alone and I will not be shaken.” I knew as soon as I heard those words, why I needed them. I knew what I needed to demolish and I knew how I needed to rebuild: on love, in love. I needed to demolish my fear, to demolish my desire to control, to demolish my anxiety. I needed to trust that God will hold and contain me--and I need to rebuild upon love.

When I worked at Principal, I took walks on my lunch breaks to keep me sane. One of my favorite things to watch was demolition. There’s something satisfying about these intentional collapses or tiny explosions, the arching cranes and the swinging wrecking balls. 

Here’s the thing: when you build something you start from the ground up. But when you rebuild something, first you have to demolish what’s there. You have to deconstruct what’s underneath. And while demolition looks cool from the sidewalk, it feels like sadness or disappointment or pain in my heart.  

But my heart and my life have been built on top of people and on top of fear. I have been afraid of being left behind. I have been afraid of failure. I have been afraid of being wrong or being hurt. So I have clung so deeply and desperately to fear, hoping anxiously that it will keep me safe. I have clung to people, hoping they won’t let me down. I have clung so tightly and created a foundation out of fear. I have been overwhelmed by anxiety and disappointment and exhaustion.
But maybe I'm tired and I'm reading too much into it. Maybe that's all the word was supposed to mean.

The next morning, I got to church and the sermon was called "Good Ground." I kid you not, these were some of the points in the sermon:

-You're only as good as your foundation.

-Obedience to Jesus and his words is the only foundation.

-Jesus doesn't just want to repair your foundation; he wants to replace it with the Rock.

Does that sound a little like demolition to you? A little like rebuilding?

Then I read in Ephesians about how as the Church, we are being built together into a place where God dwells. And I'm pretty sure he dwells in love and not in fear.

By this third "coincidence," I knew why I needed this word on my arm. I knew how and what I needed to rebuild. Today  I need to begin demolishing fear and begin rebuilding in trust in Jesus and in love. Perhaps much of life is learning what to demolish and learning what to rebuild. Maybe this is growing--tearing down and building up until we are strong and brave and resilient and loving.

So here I am today, holding this crumbling heart, trying to deconstruct the fears I've based my life upon. I'm striving to trust that the pain through the demolition process will lead to something more sturdy and strong and beautiful and enduring as I'm rebuild, more secure. As I'm rebuilt on love. As I'm rebuilt with a strong trust that God will always keep my heart safe and he will never let me down. I am hurting now, but I am being rebuilt, I believe that.

Over the last couple of months, I've been reading Hannah Brencher’s book Come Matter Here. Coincidentally, she writes: “‘I want you to look around... Look at all the things you’ve done here. You’ve built so many beautiful things, but you built them all out of fear. I don’t want you to think you have to go through your life being ruled by fear... It wouldn’t be too big to believe you could let the fear go. You could build out of love instead.”

So here I am. Demolishing the fear. Rebuilding out of love instead.

Valentine's Day by Liz Brown

Dear you,

Honestly Valentine’s Day has never been my fave. I’ve felt everything from apathetic to angsty to sad. I get it.

Last Valentine’s Day I was on tour so this is my and Blake’s first real holiday. I’m tempted to say it’s my first Valentine’s Day not alone but the truth is I previously spent it with the Aces and with my mom and sister and with gal pals. Just because you don’t have that one person doesn’t mean you’ve got to be alone.

And even if you have someone it doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Blake and I are very different people and it’s been an incredibly good and hard and challenging year—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Being in a relationship didn’t make me stop changing and crying and losing people and feeling lonely and anxious and insecure and self-conscious and jealous and all the same yucky things I felt before. If anything, being in a relationship has shined a light on my inadequacies and torn down the ways I’ve been proud and wrong.

We are constantly growing and demolishing and reclaiming and rebuilding ourselves and our relationships. Perhaps this is what it means to grow, to be human.

I’ve changed so much internally this year, demolishing thoughts about myself, relationships, and the world. I’m working to rebuild my insides. It’s long work and painful work and I’m still not done, but I’m hopeful and I’m determine to keep growing.

I am so so thankful for Blake and how he’s loved me through anxiety, sadness, joy, peace, and growth. But at the end of the day, I’m still me. And I still have to do the hard work of changing my insides and my circumstances. Blake can support me, love me, and challenge me—but that hard internal work has to be done by me. 

On days like today, drinking a cinnamon shortbread iced latte and wearing a Miranda Lambert shirt, and driving with the windows down—I’m starting to feel like myself again. Like the growth and hard work and hard days are paying off. 

I do love Blake and he’s my best person and that’s just as true on Valentine’s Day as any other day. But I remember being single and feeling so sad after scrolling through gross sappy “everything is perfect now” photos on Instagram and I don’t want to write a sappy post, not because I don’t love him, but because of how those posts made me feel. 

So this is me telling you a different story today: you’re okay. We’re figuring it out and we’re all doing our best. You’ve got this. Maybe you’ve got a hand to hold while you’re doing it and maybe you don’t, but that’s not always the point. The point is I believe in you. I’m going through hard things, too. Being in a relationship didn’t fix me. It helped me grow, but I still had to do the work. We still all have to do the work. It’s brave and it’s hard, but the beautiful thing is that you can do that brave work of growth whether or not you’re in a relationship. You can do it with your friends, your family, whatever community you find yourself in. You don’t have to do this alone. That’s the point, too, I suppose. The point is you’re doing the damn thing and you don’t have to do it alone. Every season—single or in a relationship—will be both hard and good, but if you lean in, I believe you can grow. I believe you WILL grow. I believe you are growing even if you don’t see it yet. Demolish, rebuild, grow—you’ve got this. WE’ve got this.

Much love, 

Liz 

Open Hands by Liz Brown

Every year I pick a word. 

Usually it’s a word I want to grow into, kind of like optimistically buying one size too small of your dream pants, hoping you’ll hit the goal by the end of the year. By picking the word, I will be challenged in the mental/emotional gym: it’s inevitable. Picking a word means I will be required to lean into circumstances which cause internal muscles of that word to grow. Picking a word means choosing a battle, choosing a muscle, choosing growth and pain.

Last year my word was trust. 

I recently heard Brené Brown’s definition of trust and I love it: what’s important to me is safe with you. In the same way, she explains, distrust says: what’s important to me is not safe with you. 

I picked the word trust because don’t trust others with myself. I don’t trust that God knows what’s best for me and I don’t trust that other people do either. Yes, it’s isolating. Yes, it’s prideful. But, yes, it’s also how I’ve operated my life.

It wasn’t always this way, or at least this bad. Over the past two years, I lost relationships to distance and deception of varying degrees. My own insecurity and desire for acceptance had led to two results: choosing unhealthy relationships and not being my best self in those relationships. While I’m perhaps wiser now, I lost something beautiful in the process: my ability to quickly, honestly, simply trust people. And honestly to trust the God who allowed me to feel this pain.

I wanted to get better. (Cue Bleachers.)

I wanted to be open again, to trust again, to not be afraid. The way I’d been operating was “gather all the facts, try to predict the future, and guess who won’t leave.” I loved the freedom of choosing my outcomes and I loved things being fair and “right.” I wanted to know which choices would have the best outcome and which friendships would stick—before I made the decision. I began to overthink and anxiously project the past onto the future. I made guesses, predictions, decisions—all trying to self-protect. Instead of giving me confidence and peace, these actions deprived me of enjoying the present and pushed me further into anxiety and distrust. Through growing self-awareness and kind friends, I learned that the root of this problem: I love being in control.

I want to grab onto opportunities and hold tightly to relationships—and I want them to be opportunities that work out and people that choose to stay. If the outcomes turn unfavorable, I mentally berate myself, overthink my choices (again), and wonder how my well-thought (overthought) choice could’ve been so wrong. I was so careful. I was did my research. I picked the best choice. How did it end so poorly? How did it all spin so far out of my control?

What I missed was that none of it was ever in my control to begin with.

This year so many things have happened beyond my control. People left and people changed. Job opportunities came and left. Hundreds of teary moments left me with the decision to quit wearing eyeliner—and also feelings of helplessness and, one worse days, hopelessness. I could barely keep my own heart or emotions together, let alone hold onto anything else. Everything hurt: my eyes, my heart—and my anxious knuckles from still holding on so tightly.

If I open my hands, can I trust that what will fill and refill them will be good? Can I trust that what will leave is necessary and what stays will grow me? Can I be both wise and hopeful? Could there be a different story for me, beyond and apart from anxiety and pain and control?

Through pain, my hands were torn open. Through pain, I was forced to admit there was so much I could not control. There is so much I still cannot control.

Through pain, I am learning that I must hold everything with open hands.

I used to think that trust was learning the right things to close my hands around. But I now believe that trust is choosing to hold things with open hands. 

Yes, choose wisely. Yes, don’t give up easily. 

But just as importantly, hold your life and your opportunities and your relationships with open hands. 

Maybe this is trust. 

Maybe all we can ask is for the wisdom to decide which people and which opportunities to open ourselves up to. Maybe all we can ask is for the grace to keep them in open palms, letting them go if they choose to leave. This open-handed living is incredibly scary and vulnerable, with the potential of pain and hurt, disappointment and rejection. 

But my old way of living—overthinking and anxiety—inevitably damage even the best things. Living open-handed leaves me open to the possibility of a less painful ending, a life of gratefulness and joy and trust. There’s suddenly hope. Because what if I hold the gifts in open palms—and they stay? What if the ending is much better than I anticipated? What if good things are ahead, too?

I still cannot control who will love and who will leave. It’s terrifying. I still can not control which opportunities stick and which will pass me by. It’s scary. I never let go until the anxiety and pain of trying to hold uncontrollable things together forced me to open my hands. And I’m still learning to pray and pry my hands open every day. Maybe prayer is less about folding my hands together and more about holding them open and trusting that God will demolish and rebuild me into something better than I’d anticipated or projected or anxiously hoped.

Maybe prayer is trusting that if God removes something from my hands, it’s to rebuild me, not to deprive me.

I have learned that both God and those people close to me do want my good. I have learned that I can still trust their intentions. They want to love me and treat me with gentleness and kindness and respect. They want my good, even when it’s hard. And sometimes it will still be hard.

Trust is a choice. Assuming the best in people and in God is a choice. Opening your hands is a choice. And even it’s it’s still painful sometimes, it’s how I want to live now. Because it’s also hopeful. And freeing. 

My new mantra for my life is that I want to live optimistically with open hands.

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I used to think that trust was learning the right things to close my hands around. But I now believe that trust is choosing to hold things with open hands. 

Years and Years: Minneapolis by Liz Brown

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My shutter exploded halfway through Years and Years’ set, so I’m particularly proud of these photos. After shooting, I was afraid I barely had gotten anything good, but as I hesitantly looked through the gallery at my hotel at 2am, I found some shots I am honestly proud of. I often get asked what camera I use, as if having the right gear can make or break your career. I always say the same thing: use what you have, what you can afford, and practice and practice and practice. I hope this gallery and the story of my broken shutter helps illustrate that point: it doesn’t matter so much your gear, but your eye and your willingness to keep going despite difficulties.

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The photos after this text section are ones that were affected by the broken shutter. They aren’t the same photos I would’ve gotten otherwise and there were definitely moments I missed as a result of my equipment failure. However, they are presentable and much better than I ever guessed, and I am proud of them.

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Getaway Car by Liz Brown

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Nothing good starts in a getaway car...
My friend Evan approached me a while ago about doing a shoot prior to the Taylor Swift concert he was going to. He custom-printed a jacket, we picked out a time, and he found a car. Maybe we didn't really run away, but with one of the first chilly days flooding cool air through the alley, it felt like maybe we could.

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Phantogram : 80/35 by Liz Brown

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A few years ago, with my brother and his friend Shaun, I drove to Ames and saw Phantogram. During that time, I was carrying my camera with me everywhere, so I naturally shot a few photos from the crowd. This time I was official and in the pit--and obsessed with that sparkly cape. If only I could wear something like that literally every single day. Right? Anyways, thanks to LTP for the experience and Phantogram for the great show! 

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