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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

When I set up a hug station on my virtual plot of land in Second Life, it was both an invitation and a reminder. An invitation to come, give or get a hug, and remember that no matter how much physical distance separates us we can wrap our virtual arms around one another and send love.

However, I never expected my little experiment to mean so much to me. I mean, I like a hug as much as anyone, but after four months and 28 days (but who's counting) of hiding in my apartment - only venturing forth after 11:00 pm when those who refuse to wear masks have gone to bed - I could really use a hug. These two, small rooms (shared with two precocious cats) have begun to feel like prison, and the world outside seems to have gone certifiably mad. I find myself thinking and feeling the strangest things:

- Could all this conflict and strife be a waking dream - my imagination's idea of practical joke?

- I want my mom. I miss our daily chats, her eclectic taste in books, and her belief in my inherent goodness.

- If cats could talk, what would they say about our current living arrangement? We went from polite co-habitation (in which I would disappear and leave them to their own devices for 10 to 12 hours a day) to tripping over each other at ever turn. Do they miss the freedom to shred the arms of the couch and vomit up hairballs in peace?

- Is it possible for laundry to reproduce on its own?

- Does my long, wildly out of control white hair make me look like a witch?

- Will anyone recognize me when I finally emerge sporting a tie-dyed mask?

- How is it possible for my grocery bill to have gone from $200 a month to $200 per week?!

- Is COVID-19 Mother Earth's way of saying, "I've had enough of you homo sapiens. It's time you got a reality check."

One thing is certain. Up close and personal human contact - i.e. the contact required to get and give a physical hug - is not only foolish but dangerous. Virtual hugs as an avatar, on the other hand, are not. They have become both a comforting reminder that people care and a way to safely socialize with all kinds of people from all parts of the world.

So I've been thinking. What if we could extend our virtual hugs to include those who have never heard of virtual reality and avatars? Is there a way to get and give hugs on their behalf - to extend our circle of comfort and care to include everyone and every living thing on the planet? What might that look like? How might we get the word out? And most important of all what would that massive hug look and feel like?

Join Us

If the idea of a global hug tickles your fancy, sign up to stay in touch on the Braided Lives website:

We'll not only keep you posted, but reach out for your thoughts and suggestions as well. Oh, and don't be a stranger. You can still stop by my hug station to take photos:

Or, if you see me inworld, ask for hug! They're free :-)

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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

"If stories come to you, learn to care for them and give them away. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive." - Barry Lopez

I have always loved this quote by Barry Lopez, but never really understood the second half of it. Then my mother died, I lost my job, COVID hit, and I found myself free falling into questions that had plagued me all my life:

  • Why is money valued more than the lives of people and the planet?

  • Why do some have so much but care so little for others?

  • Why do we teach children to fear failure, judge themselves and others, and believe that grades are the measure of success?

  • What could I - an admittedly creative introvert (INJF) - do to give others hope?

By the time I found the way out of my funk, two long and lonely months had passed, but I had my answer. I also understood what Lopez meant. In order to find a way forward I needed a story that would inspire me and others to do heroic things - to think outside the box, fall in love with adventure, struggle with adversity, and work with others to create positive change. Think Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) re-imagined for the 21st century.

This story would have to be told in multiple ways - words, song, photos, video, sculpture, painting, audio, 3D immersive interaction - and on multiple platforms so that people could participate wherever they are. But most of all it would require an archetypal symbol that would embody the qualities we want to awaken and nurture in one another. Not an enlightened, perfect being passing judgment, but a flesh and blood creature struggling to come to terms with the contradictions of what it means to be human - a being whose wisdom and strength are born of empathy. In one word - an Avatar.

Enter the Dragon

The name I came up with for my story was Braided Lives. The image the name called to mind - braiding the individual threads of our lives together to create a strong and colorful whole - really appealed to me. But I still needed a central figure around which to build that community For inspiration I turned to old favorites - J.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Anne McCaffrey, George R.R. Martin, Mary Shelley, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I researched mythical beings - unicorns, fire wolves, chimeras, banshees, and winged horses - but none of them felt right. Then a chance encounter (assuming you believe in chance) with someone who creates 3D dragons gave me the inspiration I needed.

What if the Braided Lives mascot was a dragon? Not a ferocious, fire breathing dragon that wrecks havoc on everything it touches but a dragon that embodies creative passion, power, and compassion. A dragon that would be a force for good.

Meet Umamma

The name I chose for my dragon is Umamma - the Zulu word for "the mother." Umamma would be the mother of all dragons and the source of inspiration, insight, and empowerment for everyone whose life she touches. She is an avatar in every sense of the word - an incarnation of spirit in dragon form who knows what it's like to struggle in this world and will help us find and tell our stories.

The spirit of Umamma will be the thread that infuses and connects all parts of Braided Lives. As you can see from the images above, I have begun to create illustrations of how she might look and to put them shirts, hoodies, and even iphone covers we can wear and carry with us. But in the end, it will be her spirit - the spirit of love and compassion - that I hope will infuse all the work we do together on Braided Lives.

If you'd like to see what Umamma merch options, visit:

Copyright 2020 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

"Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect." - Chief Seattle

My grandmother taught me about threads by teaching me to knit and crochet. She also attempted (emphasis on "attempted") to teach me sewing and the finer points of ladylike behavior, but was less successful with those. Sewing needles were too sharp for my fingers, and I've never been - and have no intention of becoming - a lady. Her approach to teaching me these skills did, however, teach me patience.

Before I could begin a project, she'd hand me a tangled mess of yarn that had been lurking in the back of one of her craft bins. My job was to undo the knots and wind the yarn into a nice, tight ball that could be gradually unrolled as the needles worked their magic.

I call the process of creating blankets, sweaters, scarves, and mittens magic because all those things are the result of using single threads of yarn and pointy sticks (some with hooks at the end) to create interconnected rows of knots. Magic. But I digress.

My grandmother would sit me down on the couch and put the yarn in my lap. "Follow the thread," she'd say. By this she meant start with one end of the yarn and follow it through the tangled twists, turns, loops and knots until I had one long, unbroken thread that could be wound into a smooth round ball.

Occasionally, when we were low on yarn or grandma was on one of her waste-not want-not crusades, she'd pull out a tub of outgrown, worn out sweaters, ski hats, and scarves reeking of mothballs, and have me unravel the thousands of carefully formed stitches into single threads, then wind them into tidy balls.

As I pondered how to share and explain my project with you, I began thinking about grandma and her threads. Like Chief Seattle, I began to see each of us as a single thread in the larger fabric of life. Your thread is singular and imbued with a unique path and purpose. But if you're like me, the thread of your life was knotted with complex challenges. The process of untangling the knots took many years and a lot of hard work. Though my thread is by no means completely clear of snarls, I now have a pretty clear understanding of who I am and what I want to accomplish in this life. I am eager to share my vision with you.

Which brings me to the project I've been promising to tell you about - Braided Lives.

Braided Lives is a multi-platform initiative designed to bring people from all walks of life together to tell their stories and collaborate on the creation of a more equitable and sustainable future. The concept was born in response to the isolation, stress, anger, and frustration that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial tensions.

It was clear to us that people are hungry for connection. They need places to meet to comfort, console, and encourage one another. They need tools that allow them to communicate and share ideas effectively. Places and tools that make it possible to braid the individual threads of their lives into powerful communities of change.

The logo above is meant to capture the heart of the Braided Lives vision. The hand at the center is making the ASL sign for love. Around the wrist is a colorful collection of friendship bracelets, symbolizing the diversity and strength of the members of our community. The water at the base represents the interconnected and interdependent sea of life we all swim in.

Braided Lives is designed to reach people where they are and will exist on three platforms: As a website, as 3D interactive rooms, and in the immersive, virtual world of Second Life. To learn more about each of these three platforms and Braided Lives' four areas of focus, visit:

Please take a moment while you're there to sign up to stay in touch and connect with me on Facebook (JenaiaMorane) so I can add you to the Braided Lives Facebook group. We would really appreciate it if you could also share this post to your Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook feeds. Let's make magic happen!

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