What makes America great? Conversations in Union Square, Portrait 3: Julie Ann

Julie Ann: late 30s, an artist who I discovered through a display of her poems at a Union Square cafe. Julie Ann, who moved to Somerville 20 years ago for college at Tufts, is also a successful businesswoman in a field she created herself, Active Receptivity Coaching.

Her poems, which are beautiful, earthy, funny, tough and wise, convinced me to get in touch with her. Here’s a small sample, the end of a poem called Blacksmith:

“…I will bend a phrase when I can find one

“wrest silver from stormy nights

“I

“will

“blacksmith

“laughs

“from

“household hatred.”

The poems are also beautifully, earthily displayed: typed out with an old manual typewriter, smudges and all, on variably colored pieces of paper, nailed to an old wooden lathe, then photographed.

Julie Ann and I arrange to meet at her office, which is in a purple house directly opposite from the white vicarage of St. Joseph’s. The room is big, high ceilinged, and soothing — mostly pale shades of green, two comfortable chairs and a couch, a neatly kept desk to one side, gauzy curtains over the big front windows that soften the afternoon light. There is a massage table by the windows.

Julie Ann has long, straight brown hair, with bangs, and is wearing a crisp yellow cardigan, a collared white shirt, and dark trousers. No shoes. Grey socks with blue toes.

As we talk, she’s an amazingly fluid combination of stillness and mobility, sitting crosslegged in her chair, her arms folded quietly in her lap, or waving them around her head to gesture; when we’re talking about her childhood, she jumps up to demonstrate a theater trick — the chair ‘walkover’ — she learned for a musical she starred in in high school. She moves easily from grounded calm to impassioned excitement, and her big laugh is never far away.

She is a fountain of uplifting ideas that seem not just fully thought through but actively felt — experienced as daily realities. As one of the accolades on her coaching site says, “Julie Ann is a bad ass mama.”

Julie Ann started her first business in 6th grade, charging kids $1 to organize their locker. “That’s all you need to know right there,” she laughs. As she got older, other jobs included mowing lawns, baby sitting, making sales calls for a telemarketing firm — “that’s when I heard my first curse words” — and working the salad bar at a Sizzler steakhouse.

“I had a uniform, a bow tie. Came home smelling like shrimp and steak. At the salad bar, I learned that 90% of a job is just looking busy. Now I’m helping people let go of that — helping them see they have value already.”

Julie Ann’s family did a lot of traveling around the Midwest and West — South Dakota, Chicago, Colorado, hiking in the Rockies, summers at a lake cabin in Iowa — and she “always knew I’d go to college out of state.

“My privilege, class, whiteness, all gave me access to think of the whole country as mine from an early age. Which was a springboard to relating to the globe, the world, as inherently also mine.”

I ask her about her first experiences abroad.

“When I was 14, I went on a foreign exchange program to Gardanne, near Marseille. Hmm. At 13 we went on a long cruise out of Vancouver. By the time I got to senior year of college at Tufts, I knew I didn’t want to go to Disneyworld for spring break. I went to the Netherlands and Switzerland.”

– “Did your early experiences with travel change your perspective on Omaha?”

“The year I was in Gardanne, at 14, they were way more sexually expressive as teenagers than we were.

“So, I was too.” She laughs.

“But, it was safe.

“The other girls weren’t worried about getting raped just because they were making out, or heavy petting. There wasn’t the sexual shaming, it was much more body positive than at home. We had more agency, less control by parents.”

A long pause.

“I don’t think I would have been able to articulate that 6–7 years ago.

“In 2011, I had a giant breaking open in my life. I worked with a spiritual counselor and therapist to heal from being raped at 16.

“To go from healing from that trauma, to integrating creativity, sexuality, spirituality…to finding that they’re all from the same place, the same faucet.

“As I allowed these parts of myself to reintegrate, they became primary. Then they led me to life that’s intuitive, body led.

“And through the body, I came into a context of original blessing instead of original sin. Your birthright is grace and wholeness — you’re already enough. The work’s already done.

“At first, I felt like I was a pipe, creativity, spirituality, and sexuality just gushing through me, all from one source. Then, it felt like a window. All I had to do was clean it, and open it.

“Now — I can’t contain it. I had to lose the container altogether. It was like realizing you don’t have to buy oxygen at the store. It’s already there, in the rooms of the house. Then you realize, it’s outside the house, the whole city. You’re swimming in that source, that inherent worthiness. You can’t bottle or sell it — it’s all there.

“Starting from 2011 — that’s the lens. Previously, I would have talked in terms of accomplishment.

“Now — my purpose is joy.” A big laugh.

“We’re not on the planet to fix, to work hard. But to invent, to be curious, to create. Kurt Vonnegut said we’re put here to fart around.” She laughs again. “That’s my growing edge right now — being at ease with being at ease.”

For someone who just wants to fart around, Julie Ann is not only successful in her coaching business, she has studied extensively with teachers in a wide range of traditions — from being an Experienced Practitioner at the Insight Mediation Center to her work with Seven Stones Leadership, a Buckminster Fuller inspired group focused on Sustainable Abundance — and is also very civically engaged.

Her most recent projects have been in response to the shift of politics in America. She created an Election Day Therapy Booth on Boston Common, where people could stop by and share their experiences with her, and she would immediately turn them into poetry. All her poetry is written spontaneously and not edited, which, given the precision and richness of the language in what I’ve seen, frankly astonishes me.

She did the same thing in D.C. for Inauguration Day, and was just awarded a grant from The Boston Foundation to do what she’s calling American Therapy. This will be a larger project, involving a group of artists listening to the public’s experience of living in America right now, whatever end of the political spectrum they’re from, and immediately translating the stories into visual, musical or verbal art. She’ll be launching the project in Alabama. The end result will be a large show in downtown Boston.

Julie Ann continues describing the transformation she went through after 2011.

“Underneath all the cultural stories, the body knows its wholeness. We think of enoughness as something to achieve, not as something that’s already there, that has just been eclipsed. Sometimes uncovering it feels like a burlesque, peeling off layers of an onion,” she raises her arms and sways them back and forth, “sometimes it feels like it’s oozing out of the cracks.

“My creative practices are about tapping into what is the felt sense of the body — teasing out texture, tone, color, movement. How can it be more visceral.”

Another pivotal experience was her studies with Dell’Arte Theatre in Bali.

“Bali is the best cultural context I’ve tasted. Healing, art, religion, they’re all the same thing.”

Julie Ann had her first experiences as a healer in Bali, leading people through spontaneous, guided meditations that produced immediate physical effects. There’s not room for both stories here, which are full of details that set off Julie Ann’s big laugh; the first ends with water draining out of a friend’s ears, the second rounds up with, “and she slept like a fucking baby!”

“There’s no stigma about those kind of things in Bali,” says Julie Ann. “It would be called a placebo here. Just a different context, a different paradigm of what’s possible.”

I ask her what she likes about American culture.

“There’s the story of feminism. We went from resisting objectifying, to self-exploitation — claiming yourself as a sex object. From that, we went to, I’m not an object, I have utility. I’m ready for a fifth wave — not utility, but inherent worthiness.

“I see Americans letting go of absolutism. People are perking up and noticing that multiple truths can coexist without losing integrity.

“Facts are facts. But in context, they can dance paradoxically. For example, on the one hand people don’t have enough to eat. On the other — there’s enough on the planet to feed everyone. Different contexts. Neither is incorrect.

“In general, I like to take the perspective, what are you for, not what are you against. But it is so nice to see the attrition of things passing away. Like, the idea of life ending in becoming a happy couple, instead of, what’s happening in your life now.”

I ask her for smaller scale, specific things she loves about America.

She laughs, her face lights up, and she wriggles in her chair.

“I love Nashville, country music.

“I like Okoboji, the lake our family goes to in Iowa. I love that my mom calls it a beach.

“I love the ocean. I’m never moving away from here.

“I like the vibe in San Francisco.

“I love middle of nowhere Nebraska — it’s the most peaceful place I’ve lived.

“I love the energy in Chicago. They’re nice like Midwesterners, and artistic like New Yorkers.” She laughs. 
 “How do they do that?

“I love hiking in Colorado and Tennessee.

“Our national parks. So many in one country! I dare anyone to spend a week in a national park and not see some beauty in life.

“I loved barbecue, but I’m vegetarian now. I love that they’re making BBQ tempeh!

“I love our restaurant industry. In the 40s and 50s, restaurants weren’t a thing, weren’t nightlife. Now, they’re a hub — a culture, an aesthetic, there’s a huge sense of invention all the time.”

– “Are there things about America that you think are great?”

“Oh yeah. Yeah.

“The people are great. A#1 with a bullet.” A big grin.

“Their compassion. Their inventiveness. Their generosity.

“In America now, we’re waking up to invisible contexts — and once you can see it, you can shift it. We’re beginning to focus on what we want to create, not what we’re against.

“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have everybody talking about how great Elizabeth Warren is — I mean, who do you want to give the limelight to?

“I like Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert. We’re getting news from them, but they’re also salving our wounds with humor. This could be the first president brought down by satire.

“We need leaders with a sense of humor. We need a creative revolution — it has to be actually entertaining. It has to have humor.

“I don’t want quiet, milquetoast, holding hands, vibrating positive intentions. That’s not going to do it for this country.

“We’re the country that invented jazz.

“We invented baseball.

“Or did we?” She laughs. “Maybe we stole that one.

“We need a giant cultural shift that is creative, entertaining.

“Inauguration Day was a really direct experience for me of what’s out there, versus what’s in the media. I was at Occupy Inauguration, and it was full of incredible creativity, a lot of Bread and Puppet style storytelling, big, beautiful paper mache creations. A great experience. On the news — there was the one garbage can fire.

“It’s great being around all the civically engaged artists here in Somerville. The city has the second highest number of artists per capita in the country, after New York, and so many of them are activists in their own way.”

The afternoon light is fading in the big windows, and Julie Ann has to get to dinner with a friend, so we wrap up the conversation and make our good-byes.

I walk out wondering how many other people and events — maybe even growing movements — I’m not hearing about in the news.

And hoping there are a lot more people like Julie Ann out there.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated JT Thompson’s story.