The Power of Permission
VW vans, phone booths, and why I’m leaving with both in a week
If you asked me 5 years ago if I thought my mom would die before she had the chance to grow old, I’d say you were fucked up for even suggesting it. If you asked me the day of my mother’s death if I’d be spending much of my life talking about death and dying in a world that doesn’t, I’d furrow my brow with the “why are you even talking to me?” look.
Before my mom was killed, death was something I rarely thought about, if ever. Now, talking about death has become my life and passion — I have a recently launched website called Death Dialogue and am about to embark on a West Coast tour with a phone booth that invites people to have conversations they wish they had with people who have died.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this tour, especially about how I got the idea to build a collapsible, soundproof(ish), and beautiful (if you ask me) telephone booth for people to have conversations with people who aren’t physically here. Well, it’s a pretty simple story.
The idea came to me in October. I had spent my summer driving around the country, and was on the final leg of my trip from Arkansas to Texas. It was late, I had no phone service, rarely saw another car, and was so isolated that for awhile there I felt like I was the only one on the planet. It’s on those kind of driving nights I often find myself sinking further and further into my thoughts — the driving turns to autopilot while my thoughts weave through the landscapes of my mind — and it’s usually about death. “I could die right now… how do I feel about that?” is a common one. Other times, these thoughts are more practical ideas on how to support people who are grieving. The topic of death showed up strongly in my friend groups last summer, so on this particular night I was thinking a lot about regret, about things left unsaid until it was too late, and how to facilitate healing in those areas.
I started thinking of modes of connection between people. My internal dialogue went a bit like this: “How do people connect? Face to face conversations…Letter writing…Text messages…Phone calls… phones calls! What if people call an answering service and they get to have the conversations they wish they had with people in their life who have died? Hm, but how to do you create a safe container around that? How does that bring the conversations of death and dying out into the open? What’s a common physical space for conversations? Coffee shops… living rooms… phone booths? Yeah. A phone booth. A collapsible phone booth so I can haul it in my van? A collapsible, lightweight phone booth that I can set up almost anywhere? Will people even want to use a sketchy phone booth? A collapsible, lightweight, and beautiful phone booth that invites people to have those conversations. What if it’s a phone booth in form, but feel like home once inside?” I dug myself further and further into this idea and it was getting more grandiose by the second.
Then I told myself if was a terrible idea. I told myself that I would be willing to participate in something like this, but that’s it. “No one wants to talk about death the way I do”, I told myself with teen angst, and I went back to driving.
I grabbed my phone to distract me. All of my downloaded podcasts had been listened to and if I listened to The Head and The Heart — (They’re great, but I can only listen to Rivers and Roads so many times on one drive) — one more time I might have cried; I had no service, remember?.
More internal dialogue as I scrolled through my podcast app: “Ugh, why did I listen to my last Moth podcast? I could use that right now. That last was was so good! Oh! Here’s a downloaded podcast. Weird, I don’t subscribe to this podcast. I wonder how it got on my phone? I didn’t download this. Let’s play it anyway.”
I began to play the podcast and was immediately freaked out. The podcast was about a guy who lost a family member to a tsunami in Japan and put a phone booth in his backyard to talk to him. I only made it through about 10 minutes of the podcast when I stopped it — I was both pissed (that was my idea!) and freaked out (how the hell did that podcast get on my phone!?). In a matter of minutes I had gone from thinking of this phone booth, telling myself it was a terrible idea, and then hearing a podcast about this very idea.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the podcast was downloaded by my friend Ashley, who road tripped the Northeast with me a month prior. I remember handing her my phone while driving through Pennsylvania to download podcasts — that’s probably how that one got there. Still, at that moment in time, with no one on the road, no cell service, and having just thought of a phone booth and then hearing a podcast about that same idea totally weirded me out.
I eventually made it to Texas and was there for a week. I then flew to Canada for a creative retreat. I was working on other projects, but the phone booth was sitting in the back of my mind. In moments of lull or quiet, I’d circle back to it and ask myself “What if?”. There was fear wrapped in it. What if people would see me as a copycat? What if they didn’t ‘get it’? What if I put money into this thing and it totally fails? …But what if it doesn’t?
I decided to reach out to a carpenter with my idea to see if it was even possible. Just to see.
As they say, the rest is history. The phone booth (that I’ve re-named The Dialogue Box) is built, the van is out of the shop, and I leave for Los Angeles in less that a week. My first event is in Los Angeles on July 22 at the Art of Freelance Showcase, and I plan to work my way up through California, Oregon, and Washington for the rest of the summer hosting events and Pop-ups from there.
And what of the fear? Oh, it’s still there. I’m still afraid it will fail, that people will like the idea but won’t want to participate, or that no one will book me for events or pop-ups. But I’ve given myself permission to try. That’s the beauty of permission — it lets me hold fear and ambition as I move forward boldly.
How do I host The Dialogue Box?
Easy! Check out the tour page on my website for different hosting options and then email me using the contact form at the bottom of the page. I’ll send you an Event Proposal and we’ll discuss more details from there.
Why is it Called The Dialogue Box?
“Phone booth” and “photo booth” are very similar. Since the latter is more common in today’s dialogue, people where calling The Dialogue Box a photo booth even when they knew it was a phone booth. It was driving me a little nuts, so I gave it a name. I landed on The Dialogue Box because it is a physical box AND it’s the name of those bubbles next to people when they’re having conversations in cartoons and such. Kind of like this.
Who can host + What kind of venues are you looking for?
The Dialogue Box is easy to transport, which means it can pop up almost anywhere. From the coziness of your living room and the corners of your favorite coffee shop, to the promenade of your favorite beach, the possibilities of places to host Conversations I Wish I Had is endless. If you want to host an event in your living room, or if you own or manage a coffee shop, museum, interesting venue and are interested in creating the space to talk about death, let’s chat. There’s more info about this on the tour page of my website.
What Kind of Conversations can I Have?
One of the best parts of sharing this idea with people is hearing how they would use The Dialogue Box. I’ve had people tell me they want to bring it to their medical residency program as an invitation for doctors to talk to a patient they couldn’t save. I’ve had people tell me they want to talk to people who’ve inspired them but they’ve never met (think: your great grandpa, David Bowie etc). I’ve had people tell me they want to talk to their old self or talk to someone who was in a time of grief and didn’t say the things they wanted to and they want to go back and re-do it in the The Dialogue Box. I’ve had people share they want to talk to someone who is physically alive but dead to them as a chance to say the things they need to say to find peace with that person.
See? Everyone has their own interpretation on how to use the The Dialogue Box; its goal is to not add limitations to conversations that take place in there, but open them.
Can I listen to any of the Conversations?
Yep! Everyone who uses The Dialogue Box will have the option to record their conversation and add it to Sound Cloud (anonymously, if preferred). If people prefer having the conversation with no recording, that’s fine too!
I have an idea for us to collaborate. Are you into that?
Yep! Contact me here.
I don’t want to host an event but I would like to attend one.
The easiest way to hear about upcoming events is to sign up for Death Dialogue emails or follow us on Facebook or Instagram. I’ll probably be sharing a bunch of updates on my personal Instagram as well.
Do you need any support?
Yes! I’m looking for photographers to shoot some of these events and pop-ups. Contact me if you’re interested in hearing more details!
Sounds like you’ve given yourself permission for a lot of work, how can I help?
Pls send Tequila. Thx.
ok but really, thanks for asking! If you’re interested in volunteering (either with set up, or flow of events and pop-ups) contact me here. Make sure to include your city!