Reclamation

Recently I went back to the little mountain town in the Southern Colorado Rockies that I called home for twenty years, and wrapped up the sale of my house. It was an important trip for me, one which I’ve been anticipating ever since I arrived in Maine two and a half years ago. My partner and I drove out and drove back. I didn’t try to blog or write on the road, but I made a lot of notes and I discovered a persistent theme.

Reclamation, according to a quickie internet search, means “the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right” or “the cultivation of waste land or land formerly under water.” It strikes me there’s an interesting and subtle possibility of conflict in those two definitions. What exactly is waste land, and who has the power to define it? Also, what does cultivation mean? Big Ag? Monocropping? Pesticides and Roundup? Or cultivation by the plants, animals and wind?

In any event, I’ve been carrying the word reclamation for some years now like a talisman. It’s a cord that links the events and choices of the last years together.

I remember exactly when it started. I was sitting in a chair in the salon where a friend cut my hair for years. In the mirror, I could see my hair falling over my shoulders and down my back, thick and wavy and beginning to be streaked with grey. I was desolate because of a broken relationship, and I saw a woman who was unwanted in that mirror. I didn’t want to be her anymore. I wanted to be someone else. My friend asked me what I wanted to do and I told her to cut it all off. “Reclamation,” I said. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t want to break into sobs, but she knew exactly what I meant, and she tied a smock around my neck and started cutting.

My ex-boyfriend had loved my hair. I loved it, too. It made me feel sexy and beautiful and feminine. It was the first step I took on the road that led me to this attic space in central Maine, where I sit this summer morning (with short hair) writing with the windows open and the sound of crickets, frogs and birds flowing in.

I held onto that word, reclamation. It became a boat to sail away in, and then a lifeboat, and then a raft and then a spar of wood in a fathomless sea of floating debris that kept me alive until the current and waves took me back to shore.

The little town I lived in had no claim to fame or big dollar tourism except for a golf course. When I moved there the course was renowned for being one of the most beautiful in the country, and visitors came from all over during the summer to play there, filling the inns and RV parks. Then drought struck that part of Colorado, the golf course was sold to an absentee owner who immediately got crosswise with the town, and gradually, due to a mixture of water problems, politics and general assholery on the part of the owner, the golf course went downhill, people lost jobs, the greens became unkempt and the tourists stopped coming. Then, just about the time I left town, the golf course closed.

I don’t play golf and my living fortunately didn’t depend on the tourist trade, but every morning, just before dawn, I walked on the golf course.

I didn’t do it for exercise or as a discipline. It was my lifeline. It was the one place where I never failed. I was guaranteed solitude and peace. Nobody knew where I was. I knew the course so well I could disappear into it, be absorbed. I had several routes, one for ordinary days, one for days of grief, one for days of rage and the longest one for days of despair. I used some of the cart paths, but mostly I followed the contours and edges of the greens and walked along the river, which was generally only a trickle, if not entirely dry. I often heard the owls going to roost as the meadowlarks began their morning chorus. I saw bears, foxes, deer and geese.

In the days of relative plenty, maintenance men worked as early as I was walking, but I was a familiar local figure and we ignored each other. I avoided them and they only saw me at a distance. There was an elaborate sprinkler system, of course, that worked all night every night and made the whole place fresh and green and cool, a stark contrast to my daily reality of hauling or pumping grey water out to my garden because of drought and watering restrictions. I lived a five-minute walk away.

During the trip we only spent one night in that little town, but I woke early, slid into my clothes and walked to the golf course. I knew it had been closed altogether for some time. This year the drought broke in the valley with record amounts of snow and rain, and the river that so often dried up completely flooded, both on the course and through the town. As I slipped through the gates and passed the “no trespassing” signs in the dark of early dawn, I could hear the river, an amazing, miraculous sound. The scent and chill kiss in the air of the running water was very different from the mechanical chik, chik, chik of an automatic sprinkler head.

The cart path was rutted, muddy and overgrown. Large tree limbs fell and nobody cleared them away. The river actually broke out of its banks and spread across a former green. I’d seen pictures in the local paper, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. The town sent in machinery to make barriers out of heaped-up debris and mud. Whole trees had toppled, their root balls pathetically exposed to the sky.

Once, I could have walked several paths on the golf course blindfolded. I often was there in the dark. Now my footing was uncertain. The grass grew up to my waist and I kept tripping over hidden windfall branches. The sand traps were filled with weeds. The greens were, of course, gone. The groomed contours that marked my route had vanished, forcing me to slow down and move more cautiously. I strained my eyes to discover familiar slopes and hollows in the dim light.

As I moved deeper into the old course, I thought of all the hundreds of mornings I’ve spent there, praying, weeping, raging, pressing myself against nature in every mood and season. I took my joy there, my hope, my dreams, and my gratitude practice. The golf course was a place of creative inspiration, a place of guidance and comfort, a place in which to staunch wounds enough to carry on another day. I was real there. I didn’t try to hide from myself.

That highly-groomed, herbicide-gagged, shaved, enslaved, money-making piece of land (a waste land) is going wild again. It was captured, bought and pimped by a businessman in order to create a profit. Now, Mother Nature reclaims her own. The land begins to remember itself. As I walked and the light increased, showing me myriad signs of healing, I felt akin to the land. What is happening there is happening to me. I had a pimp, too–myself. I sold myself for what I thought I was worth in order to get what I needed. Now the land and I reclaim ourselves from a bleak and limited culture that relies on chemicals, profit and power-over rather than natural cycles and cooperation.

Reclamation is not a controlled, civilized process. It’s wild, sometimes catastrophic. The river made a scar where it broke its banks and uprooted trees, but it carved out a new bed for itself. The old bed will fill in. New growth will cover all that exposed earth. The downed limbs and trees will rot and feed the soil and mycelium while native plants and grasses return. Is this what we mean by waste land? Forest fire, flood and storm are acts of nature that reshape the land and environment. Life dies and renews, one act leading to the other.

Life dies and renews, one act leading to another.

We often experience reclamation as terrifying and tragic. Human beings, for the most part, don’t welcome change unless we control it.

Yet we do change. The world changes. The weather changes. Those around us change. We can neither stop nor control it in any significant way, and I’m entirely grateful for that. The golf course and I are messy. Our hair is disheveled. Our trim, neat lines are blurred. The high unmown grass through which I waded brushed against the hair on my bare legs. The water that feeds the land and the water of feeling that feeds me has carved a new, wider path. Bridges and trees sag and unravel, not trash but compost for the next thing. Paths and fences fall into disrepair. Grass and saplings mingle freely, each reaching toward the other at the edges.

Snakes, rabbits and insects live again in the shelter of the grasses. Does can leave their fawns safely concealed while they browse, and their presence will bring the mountain lions down from the foothills. Owls will find abundant mice, voles and other rodents in what was a carpet of sterile green velvet. The beaver and raccoons will no longer be trapped or shot, lest they disturb the regulated beauty of the water features or annoy the tourists. Over all this complex, creative system, the meadowlark still sings, that king of the high fields and plains, and his song still brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my throat.

That land will always be home to the woman I was. I was glad to return for a brief hour and realize my beloved place has moved on, just as I have. The land and I were both over-civilized into waste land, but now we’re reclaiming ourselves. The golf course and I reassert our right to be what we are. We surrender to change, to mess, to the transformative edge of chaos.

Reclamation. Our daily crime.

Visit my Good Girl Rebellion page for a look at women reclaiming their bodies.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Needs 2: Care and Feeding of the Elephant

I was absent last week in order to take a trip back to Colorado and finish selling my house. On the road, I thought about my last blog  and the second part of coming to terms with needs. Discovering, admitting and identifying one’s needs is, alas, just the beginning of what I suspect is a lifelong journey!

So, to recap my last post, we all have needs, and we’re all driven by our needs, whether or not we’re aware of them. If we’re not aware of our needs or those of others, great big elephants are standing in the middle of our living rooms, invisible to us until we run into them, or they step on us. Our relationships and lives don’t work well and we have no clue why.

One of the trickiest parts of thinking about needs is taking responsibility for them. If we look at the needs inventory, consent to recognize and admit our needs and make a list of them, it seems logical to begin to evaluate how well our needs are being met by others.

Here’s the thing, though. All the people around us have needs too, some identical to ours and some different. That doesn’t mean we’re responsible to meet all those needs, and they’re also not responsible for meeting our needs.

Newsflash! Having a right to get our needs met and understanding our needs are as important but not more important than everyone else’s doesn’t guarantee our needs will actually be met by … anyone.

This seems unfair to me. Excavating my own needs and acknowledging them, even to myself, was a lot of work. I was annoyed when I realized nobody much cared what my needs are. They’re too concerned with their own! What’s the point of this aspect of emotional intelligence, then?

First of all, it’s about adulting. Grownups know who they are, including understanding what they need. Those of us who aspire to adulthood are required to possess this kind of self-knowledge and accept responsibility for communicating our needs to others, not because anyone has an obligation to meet them, but because we’re willing to know ourselves and allow others to know us, too.

Needs are inextricably enmeshed with boundaries . I have a long history of ineffective boundaries that resulted in me choosing the needs of whoever I was with over my own. Paired with another person with bad boundaries, this quickly becomes an unhealthy, unhappy relationship. One of the words we use to describe such a connection is codependent.

The second point about working with needs is that our satisfaction and enjoyment of connection with others is directly related to the degree to which our relationships help us meet our needs. This is complicated by the fact that feeling love for someone doesn’t imply our needs are well met in relationship with that person. For example, media-driven portrayals of romantic love don’t address needs at all outside the realm of sex, and sex is not enough to create long-term relationships that work.

Thirdly, we humans have a great propensity to self-destruct when our needs are not well met. We use strategies like substance addiction, sexual acting out, eating disorders and cutting to manage the painful dysfunction of not getting our needs met. Sadly, the culture focuses on fixing the behavior rather than the cause–the unmet need.

Fourthly, making friends with our needs connects us to our power. When we understand what’s not working in our lives and why, we’re empowered to make better choices on our own behalf and create the kind of life we want. We build boundaries. We learn to be more authentic. We learn to be responsible, which is another way of saying we learn to manage our own power.

Another aspect of needs is that they change. Our needs change as we age, as we grow, as we move through our lives. Not only do needs change, we can be wrong about what we think we need and discover, accidentally, needs we never thought we had but cannot do without once recognized.

I said this was tricky, remember?

Having our needs met is not a black and white experience. No one person can meet all their own needs or all the needs of another, no matter how beloved. Expecting any single person to meet all our needs puts an unbearable burden on that person and the relationship. Human beings need healthy community because community helps us all meet most of our needs most of the time.

So how many of our needs must be met for a relationship or a life to be healthy and effective? I don’t think there’s a formula for this. I suspect every case is different, because we’re all unique individuals. We have several core needs in common, but we don’t all need the same things to the same degree.

For example, think about noise. I’m very sensitive to noise. Prolonged and unrelieved exposure to traffic, loud music, television, crowds, airplane and car noise or even a beeping alarm unhinges me. First I’m frantic, then I’m exhausted and then I’m ill. I have a primary need to control the noise in my environment. I hate crowds, parties, loud restaurants and cities.

Other people don’t seem to even notice noise levels. Many millions live in cities with a constant background of noise quite happily. I was struck by how many people live along the interstate system as we drove from Maine to Colorado and back again. I couldn’t live beside a freeway for a day without losing my mind. Life would literally not be worth living for me.

If my need for a low-noise environment doesn’t get met, nothing else will work for me. I can’t function in a noisy environment, period.

On the other hand, I’ve always believed order in my environment was also an essential need. I’ve lived in such a way that I’ve controlled housekeeping, cleaning, etc., except for private bedrooms and workspaces romantic partners and children have had. Before I came to Maine, I was sincerely certain that I couldn’t live happily in disorder, dust and clutter.

Much to my surprise, chagrin and irritation, I’ve discovered that’s not true. The old farmhouse my partner and I are living in is falling down and loaded with (to my eyes) junk and clutter, most of it undusted for years. I often feel frustrated and resentful about this. However, our relationship is filled with things that are meeting my needs in ways they’ve never been met before, and getting so many needs met balances out the squalor (my interpretation) in the house!

Managing my needs has become a kind of dance. After much practice, I now maintain a friendly relationship (mostly) with my needs as they ebb and flow. I’ve learned to tell others when my needs are not met without apology or justification, as well as communicate what I need simply and directly. I’ve got some beautiful boundaries in place. I’ve learned to ask others what they need, not because their needs are my responsibility, but because I want to support them getting their needs met. I’ve let go of expectations that anyone is obligated to meet my needs, but I treasure and nurture those relationships in which my needs are met naturally.

I also have precious people in my life whom I dearly love who don’t meet many of my needs, and that’s okay. Those connections are based on other things. I probably don’t meet many of their needs, either, but it’s not for lack of love and it doesn’t mean anyone is bad and wrong.

Managing needs takes a lot of mess and clutter out of my life. If something’s not working, I notice it right away and a little contemplation leads me quickly to the bottom line–what need is not getting met? Where and how am I feeling disempowered? What can I do to help myself and who do I need to have an honest discussion with?

Taking action when there’s a problem, communicating carefully and authentically and taking responsibility for my own needs invites those around me to do the same. Some people will accept the invitation and some won’t. We can’t control what anyone else does or doesn’t do. However, we can choose which connections to put energy into and which to bless and release, and we can commit to managing our needs effectively and appropriately, for our own sake as well as the sake of others.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Needs 1: The Elephant in the Living Room

Life coaching transformed my experience in several powerful ways. For me, however, there’s one central concept that underlies all the new language, ideas, strategies and choice making that has so reshaped myself and my life.

Every one of us has needs, and we’re driven by trying to get them met.

Duh, right? Written on the page like that, it seems ridiculously obvious. It’s not, though. It’s enormously complex and it affects every single choice we make. Let’s excavate a little.

In my old life, I defined needs as things like oxygen, water, food and shelter. Needs meant to me the necessities of survival. Anything else was wants, or even undeserved privilege. To need more than I have at any given moment is inconceivable to me, even now. To want more than  I have is still shameful. I’ve spent my life with an internalized voice that informs me I should be damn grateful for my resources, because it’s so much more than many others have, and I’ve done nothing to deserve my good fortune.

It’s undeniably true that I’ve had advantages because I’m white, I’m educated, I’m able-bodied, employed and have the ability to feed myself. I have access to potable hot and cold running water. I have a roof over my head. I have access to health care.

Are these realities of my life a matter of shame? Does wanting the roof over my head to stop leaking make me a privileged elitist? Does it assist anyone who has less than I to go hungry, or stop trying to earn a few dollars?

Privilege is a hot word right now in social discourse. It’s a word that shows up in discussions around gender and sex, racial issues, economic issues and geopolitical relations. Privilege is an important discussion, but the word has been used so frequently, especially as an insult, that it’s losing its meaning. Show me any two people anywhere and I’ll show you several different ways in which one has resources and experiences not available to the other. Privilege is a word that points to competition for power, and our definitions of power are distorted into insanity. Privilege is too often used as a meaningless black and white label that expresses more about the speaker than it does the target.

Do you have a cell phone? I don’t. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you male? I’m not. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you Caucasian? I am. I’m privileged. I’m literate. Definite privilege from my point of view, but according to some, this makes me elitist (another word that’s becoming severely overused). I had and have access to vaccinations. I think this makes me privileged. An anti-vaxer thinks it makes me wrong and stupid.

And so it goes.

Have you noticed how quickly we’ve gone from the simple idea of human needs to politics–social, sexual, economic and geo?

An internet search defines a need as a “necessity; a thing that is wanted or required.” As I said above, I disagree with the “wanted” part. How do we decide what’s required? Who gets to define that? Requirements take me back to the my basic list: Oxygen, food, water, shelter. I’m convinced anything else is a want.

During life coaching, I was referred to The Center For Nonviolent Communication. They have a needs inventory posted that exploded my definition of needs.

The first thing I noticed about the needs inventory is that my needs list occupies only a small fraction of the whole. Secondly, with the exception of food, water, shelter and sex, the inventory transcends anything that can be bought or sold. It’s not about stuff, money, biology, ethnicity, education, religion or “privilege.” In fact, it’s not a list that points out differences at all. It’s about intangible needs that we all have in common. All of us. You, me and them.

The first, second, fifth and tenth time I read this list, I cried. I printed it out and stuck it between the pages of my journal. As I worked with it, I felt deeply angry, terribly sad and a kind of furtive relief. Some unknown person or persons had written an inventory that expressed the deepest, most secret desires of my heart, desires I wasn’t really even conscious of. I couldn’t afford to be conscious of them.

Was it possible that other people wanted what I did? Was it okay to want these things, even normal?

The first time my life coach said to me, “You have a perfect right to get your needs met,” I felt so enraged I nearly hung up on him. It was the biggest, most outrageous lie anyone had ever said right to my face. I told him to never say that to me again.

If I knew anything, it was that I had no needs, and if I ever did entertain such a criminal, inappropriate, shameful and downright stupid thing as a need, it would never, ever get met. My job in life was not to have needs. My job was to meet the needs of those around me. I was terrible at that job, failed it every day, had no hope of ever doing it well, but that’s what I was for in the world.

The second grenade my coach threw was this: “Your needs are as important and not more important than anyone else’s.”

In the following months and years, right up until this day, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the transfiguration of some of my most deeply rooted and fundamental beliefs and rules. Understanding needs has hung the formerly invisible elephant in my living room with neon lights. I’ve reframed my history and my past and present relationships. Coming to terms with my needs has enriched my relationship with myself and others is astounding ways.

I realize now my needs have always been present, driving my behavior, just as those around me have been driven by their needs, but I think few of us have access to that central information and understanding. This is ironic, because I’ve always been well aware of what people want from me; what they expect. What I now understand is what some people want–compliance, submission, adhering to rules and expectations–is surface behavior that masks the simple need for personal power.

As I said earlier, our relationship to power is so diseased and distorted that we’re all affected by a kind of cultural insanity. We believe that power-over will fill our need. We believe that hate, projection, physical brutality and force, name-calling, labeling, gaslighting, dishonesty and manipulation will give us what we need.

Power-with is often sneered upon, or used as a Trojan Horse within which the true desire for power-over hides. Once we understand the needs inherent in all human interaction, it’s not hard to discern the difference between power-over and power-with. If it’s accepted that one party’s needs are as important, but not more important than another’s, that’s power-with. If, on the other hand, one individual, group, political movement or any other social entity demonstrates persistent tactics that seek to take power away from someone else, that’s power-over.

Humans make a lot of noise. We create language, slap on labels, pick up and pass on meaningless bits of jargon and ideology. We deny, distort, and cling grimly to our beliefs. We freely use humiliation, contempt and aggression to shut each other up and try to threaten others into believing/behaving in the way we want them to. We fight fiercely to get our needs met, no matter the expense to others. Our win is based on someone else’s loss. This is the environment of power-over.

Humans are also remarkably flexible and resilient. We can be curious. We can think critically, synthesize information, study things, make observations. We can develop the great strength of learning how to be wrong. We can demonstrate heroism, compassion, kindness and generosity. We can be elegant and meaningful communicators. We can create communities of deep connection that include people, animals, plant life and the environment. We can aspire to a world in which the words “privilege” and “elitist” lie down to rest because competition has been discarded in favor of cooperation. Everyone’s needs have equal importance, and no one is allowed to overrun another. Success is deomonstrated by win-win. This is the environment of power-with.

One of my daily crimes is having needs. Trying to get my needs met underlies my choice making, my behavior and my motivation. It even underlies the kind of music I like. It’s a great big elephant in the center of my experience, and it requires food and water, room to roam and attention.

Skim over the needs inventory. Choose one aspect of your life: Job, relationship, what have you.

Now, in the deepest, darkest privacy of your mind, ask yourself, “Are my needs being met?” Don’t think about the answer. Feel it.

Behold the elephant!

 

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted