Mapping the Story

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much living a life resembles writing a story.

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We love our stories, whether they be in the form of songs, film, books (digital or tangible) or spoken language. We love the nonfiction of history and science, memoirs and fiction. Story has anchored me to life since before I learned to read.

During my writing hours I’m engrossed in creating characters and weaving them together. One scene gives rise to another. There must be action and movement. There must be some kind of story logic. Every word must help drive the story forward. Characters need to be believable and recognizable in their behavior and growth. As an audience, we want to see characters change and learn. We want to commiserate with and applaud our favorite characters. We want them to do well.

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As a writer, I don’t have total control or knowledge of my story. I create a rough outline, characters and setting and start writing. If I’ve done well with my characters, the act of writing animates them into becoming collaborators rather than pawns. I’ve learned the characters who remain passive and one-dimensional are weak and need to be reworked. I may have a direction I want my characters to go in, but strong ones frequently refuse to comply with my outline and notes and we wind up sitting glaring at one another with our arms folded, my character looking out from the laptop screen at me at the keyboard. The flow of the writing stops then, until I set aside my rigidity and work with other possibilities.

This is exactly like life. How often have we gone down a blind alley and wound up with our noses against a brick wall but been too stubborn or exhausted or despairing to retrace our steps and choose another direction? How often have we taken a well-worn path of anxiety and wound up in a trackless desert or marsh, floundering, miserable and lost?

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As we journey through the story of our own lives, however, our view is from the bottom of the valley rather than from a high mountain from which we can see the whole thing. We live our stories one moment at a time, losing sight of the beginning and never knowing the end until we reach it. Our lives are filled with things like visits to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, lost car keys, bills, errands, flat tires and dead car batteries, and colds.

But these details, so ubiquitous in what we call “real life” add nothing to a great film or book. They’re not sexy and entertaining. Nobody wants to watch Wonder Woman floss her teeth or cut her toenails. We don’t see our favorite heroes spending hours hunched over their phones, tablets and games.

We can’t tell the sweeping story of our lives while we’re living them. We know when things feel good or bad, but we don’t look beyond that most of the time. We’re more concerned with our discomfort and disappointment than we are with the inherent ebb and flow of life.

We don’t think about what our story requires. We don’t see our most difficult times as turning points essential to our story.

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As a writer, however, I know tension, conflict and obstacles are necessary. They create movement and growth. They create change. They force characters to reveal weaknesses and summon strengths. They teach resiliency and test faith.

What would it be like if we could watch our own lives as though watching the next big superhero movie? What if we could revel in the setting we find ourselves in, even if we decide to escape it and find a new one? What if we chose to feel inspired by the unpredictability of our unfolding lives and heartened by the way obstacles shape us?

What if it was all an essential, beautiful part of our story?

What if . . . ?

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Releasing Outcomes

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I think of myself as a goal-oriented, disciplined person. Most of the time I know what I want (at least I think I do). Some of the time I’m intentional and present with my choices. I like routine and can be both dogged and stubborn.

Outcomes have always been important to me. I’ve set my sights on what I want to happen and started trying hard to achieve that desired outcome.

I don’t remember ever being taught that creating certain outcomes is the way to live successfully and happily, but that was a belief around which my choices and behavior were structured. A desired outcome was success, and therefore good. An outcome I didn’t want was failure, and therefore bad.

I didn’t consciously notice for much of my life that trying to create just the right outcome never worked that well for me.

When I came to Maine and learned emotional intelligence, I started thinking about personal power and I finally really looked at how strongly desired outcomes motivated me. I was furious when I first came across the idea of letting go of outcomes. What I heard was invalidation and rejection of my ability to make long-term goals and plans and steadily, a step at a time, work toward them. I also thought I was hearing it was inappropriate to have dreams and desires. How could one navigate through life without caring about outcomes?

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It took time, a lot of exposure and a couple of difficult and painful events, but eventually I understood that investment in outcomes was the problematic piece, not needing, desiring or the degree to which we are disciplined and can tolerate delayed gratification.

We do not have complete power in the way things work out because our goals and plans inevitably include others.

By others I mean other people (the job, college or mate we want), whatever our conception of the Divine might be, and influences like the weather, the stock market, the tax return we counted on, the housing market, the weather, our state of health, and a thousand other variables.

Outcomes are as unpredictable as a loose cannon on a rolling deck, yet I based my happiness and sense of worth on them for most of my life.

For the most part I was unhappy, anxious and felt like a failure.

Then, somewhere I read or heard this little phrase: “However it needs to be, it’s okay with me.”

When I first came across it, I felt angry. It was a blatant lie. I was reluctant to think it, let alone say it. On the contrary, I was deeply invested in outcomes.

But it didn’t work well to live that way, and I kept noticing that.

For some time I watched myself using all my energy in the tension of trying to create specific outcomes that eluded me.

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In my usual buttheaded fashion, I hung on grimly. If I wasn’t seeing the outcomes I intended and wanted, it was because I didn’t deserve them. Or I didn’t work hard enough. Or I was so broken and stupid nothing would ever work for me. Or the world was against me.

It was much easier to hurt myself and hate myself, both old habits, than consider the possibility that none of us can really control outcomes. It was easier to blame others than change myself.

What we can control – the only place our personal power resides – is what we do with ourselves in terms of our beliefs, choices and behaviors.

Deciding how to think about outcomes is part of our personal power.

I formed a conscious intention of experimenting with letting go of outcomes. One of my very first explorations into that was this blog.

One of the biggest problems with attachment to outcomes for me is that the outcome looms so large it overshadows the hundreds of small pleasures in life, as well as my delight and curiosity in the journey I take through each day. I’m too busy trying to get to an outcome to notice or appreciate anything else. Attachment to outcomes means there’s only one very specific way I can feel successful or happy, and in order for that to happen all the stars must align just right and everyone and everything around me must behave exactly as I want them to. Otherwise I’ll be resentful, depressed, discouraged, hurt, or some other kind of miserable.

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Attachment to outcomes is also a relationship killer. Whatever it is that we want our children, parents, spouses, colleagues, bosses and friends to do or be (or not do or be), the fact is they are not pawns on our chess board. They are not paper dolls. They are not (hopefully) ours to control.

If we cannot accept our loved ones (or ourselves, for that matter) for who they are, we will lose them.

Attachment to outcomes comes with a heavy burden of fear and anxiety. As long as an outcome is “good” or “bad’ in our minds, both hope and fear attach to it. We invest energy in trying to avoid certain events and foster others. We try to figure out how to manipulate and influence the situation so it turns out the way we want.

We lose sight of the others around us very quickly. If we have our hearts set on a job, for example, even though we’re not well qualified for it, we do whatever it takes to get hired, never considering someone else might be a better fit. Someone else might be more desperate than we are for the job. The organization might need a specific set of skills and talents we do not possess. Another job opening we’re not yet aware of might be the place we’re most needed and will be most happy.

Attachment to outcomes can make us small and rigid, selfish and resentful.

So what does it look like to let go of outcomes?

Change and the unexpected are no longer fearful, but interesting. We make space for them. We have increased room for others because we’re not trying to control them. We take life less personally. We are confident and clear in our own power.

To let go of outcomes is to let go of distractions. It frees up space and energy to consider our own integrity, expression and needs. If we want to give a gift, we do it without worrying about how it will be received, if it will be reciprocated or how it will be judged. We give because it makes us happy and gives us pleasure to do so.

If we are artists, we create because it gives us joy, because it’s what we were born for. We don’t use our talent as a tool to leverage fame and riches. That doesn’t mean fame and riches won’t come or our art is not worth getting paid for, it just means that’s not an outcome that drives us.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of feeling victimized, resentful and betrayed. We don’t take disappointment personally. Life is not all about us.

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Letting go of outcomes makes room for cooperation and collaboration. We see others more clearly, lovingly and respectfully. We’re a more elegant team player. We enjoy working with others without the need for competition or power and control. We look for ways to share and nurture power. We give up the blame and shame game.

Letting go of outcomes means letting go of regrets. We make space instead for all outcomes, whether intended or not, comfortable or uncomfortable. We go forward with our best, most honest and heartfelt effort and have fun, letting the rest take care of itself. We use our time and energy to cultivate curiosity, wonder and gratitude for whatever happens.

Letting go of outcomes starves our anxiety, depression and insomnia. If we can position ourselves in life with confidence, surrender and acceptance, we build resilience and joy.

Let me hasten to say releasing outcomes is hard work. I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that at times I’m invested in my resentment over the way things work out and my sense of betrayal. I don’t want to be soothed, comforted, or challenged to consider my experience from a different perspective. I want to be left alone to suck my thumb and pout, my version of a tantrum. Managing my expectations and attachment to outcomes is a work in progress.

I also do not deprive myself of the pleasure of making and achieving personal goals that have to do with exercise, building skills, playing, relaxing or learning new habits. Those kinds of outcomes are well within my power to pursue.

When I feel frustrated and as though nothing ever works out for me, I’ve developed the habit of saying that phrase aloud to myself: “How ever this needs to be, it’s okay with me.” If it feels like a lie in my mouth, I start poking at the situation and asking myself why I’m attached to a particular outcome. I put my energy into taking a step back and reevaluating the situation until I really am okay with whatever outcome occurs. I summon my curiosity, warm up my gratitude, invite my sense of humor to awaken and go forward.

It’s the difference between rolling out of bed and telling the day how it must be in order for me to be happy or rolling out of bed wondering what the day will bring and choosing to enjoy whatever that is in advance.

It’s the difference between arguing with what is and acceptance.

It’s the difference between feeling disempowered and standing firmly in my own power.

However I need to be, however you need to be, however this day needs to be, it’s okay with me.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Frozen In Place

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

I moved to Maine with a U-Haul packed with things from my old life. I was moving from a small, tight, energy-efficient home where I lived alone to a slouching, leaking farmhouse with a cracked foundation and a peeling roof. I didn’t trust my cherished possessions to the dubious protection of the house or the barn, also dilapidated and leaking.

So I rented a storage unit.

Now it’s four years later and I’ve been reading and thinking about minimalism. Minimalism appeals to me because it creates space and simplicity in our lives. I’m gradually coming to understand that even my most cherished possessions are not that important to my quality of life. In some ways they even block my view and obscure thresholds and openings.

That’s not to say I don’t frequently miss my just-the-right-firmness double mattress and box spring in storage, or my comfy couch and matching chair. I do miss them, but they don’t fit into my life anymore and they don’t fit into the house. Literally. I don’t think we could get my modern overstuffed couch in the old front door.

My bed and furniture, along with a few boxes, have languished in subzero temperatures in the winter, and heat and humidity in the summer, and I’ve faithfully paid the monthly rent all this time.

A couple of weeks ago we had a call from the owners/operators of the storage unit to say there was flooding on the property.

Here in Maine, we have yet to experience a snowstorm this season that wasn’t mixed with freezing rain. What this means is layers of ice have built up on the frozen ground and clogged culverts and drains. As temperatures see-saw between normal below-freezing and subzero and much warmer air that turns falling snow to rain, the rain has nowhere to go.

The storm that caused the problem at the storage unit dumped several inches of snow and then three inches of rain. Cellars and basements that had never flooded before got wet. Intersections and streets flooded in town. It was a mess. At the storage unit, all that water couldn’t drain away from the buildings, so it crept along the ground and washed through them.

When we unlocked the door and pushed it open, we found ice covering the floor of the unit. The floor slopes a little, so the ice thickness varies from half an inch to two inches or possibly more in places I couldn’t see well. Everything on the floor is absolutely frozen solid to the cement.

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For now, there’s nothing much I can do. After the initial look, I went back with a friend for moral support on another day. As I pushed up the overhead door, I had the usual pang of nostalgia and loss at the sight of all those pieces from my old life, unused and abandoned. Added to that is the bitter cold and solid ice locking it all into place as though it will never let go.

The irony is inescapable. I was trying to keep all those things safe from water and fire while I waited for a life they would fit into again. Keeping them safe felt like keeping me safe, or at least parts of me. Memories. History.

It’s all an illusion, though. How safe is any object? Objects get lost, broken or stolen. They get damaged. We have to manage them, care for them, protect them, carry them from place to place.

A couple of inches of ice have forced me to confront my thoughts and feelings about my stuff. Embracing minimalism is all about de-owning and decluttering, but as I go through my possessions in the house I’m in control. I can choose what to discard and what to keep. Now an act of nature has taken away some of my choice.

My cherished bed, for example, is nothing more than a mattress and box springs leaning against the wall in the back of a storage unit that got wet and are now firmly anchored in ice. When I am able to remove them and take them to the dump, all I’ve lost is the objects themselves. I’ll still remember with pleasure my wonderful bed and using all the bedding that goes with it. I’ll still remember my cat with love and gratitude, and treasure the happy hours we spent together on that bed.

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I’ve lost nothing but the necessity to store the bed for the sake of my memories and/or future possibilities. The truth is I have no use for a double bed in the life I’m living right now.

Why do we save things? Why are our lives full of things we wouldn’t buy today for the life we live now? Why do we save things “just in case?” Just in case of what? Does just in case ever come or is it merely a scary or hopeful story we tell ourselves? Do the things around us speak of who we are right now, or of who we once were or who we wish we were? Are we frozen in the past or in our fantasies? 

The poet David Whyte says that most of us are at least three to four years behind our own growth and change. That struck a chord with me. My storage unit is filled with things from a life I left four years ago, a life I couldn’t go back to even if I wanted – and I don’t. I have moved on and out and up. As precious and sweet as some aspects of my old life were, they’re gone.

Except that I’ve been holding on, which has cost money and now created a situation requiring me to cut my losses and clean up. Maybe, if we took the front door off its hinges and even removed the door frame, we could have gotten my couch into the house, replaced the broken-down one we presently use, and been enjoying it all this time.

(Except the TV is always on in the living room. I hate the TV. The couch is mine. It used to be my reading place, but I can’t read in our disaster of a living room with the TV on. I don’t want it here if I can’t ever enjoy it! It’s mine. And the cat will sharpen her claws on it. And what if the house burns down?)

There is no moral to this story, aside from having learned it really is a good idea to put pallets down in a storage unit! It will be some weeks before the ice softens enough to chip off the floor and sweep out or melt. I have gone in and salvaged what I could, discarded some things, assessed some of the damage. Everything will have to come out while I dry the floor. Then I’ll need to discard whatever is ruined, buy and transport pallets and re-pack the unit.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the number of objects I’m carrying through my life. For far less than I’ve already spent on the storage unit we could have tightened up at least two of the outbuildings right here on the property for storage. How badly do I need anything I haven’t used in four years?

I’m inclined to be grateful for the flooding of my unit. It forced me to ask some important and provocative questions. It forced me to consider what’s truly important for my happiness. It challenged me to let go of things that no longer serve me without fear or regret.

When I left Colorado, I told friends that I was coming to Maine because I thought I had a life here waiting for me. It’s taken me some time to find it, but I was right about that. I chose not to remain frozen in place, and that’s still my choice. Perhaps it’s time now to free my things from that old life as well.

Thawing the ice. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted