Monthly Archives: December 2017

Discovering Character

Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.

I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.

But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?

In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?

Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.

Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.

Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply that we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.

The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely, and there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.

It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.

As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgemental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.

Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.

This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our nostalgia, grief, gratitude, financial fears and resentments. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.

Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.

Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.

Our daily crime.

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

Yule: The Fool’s Journey

Yule, the winter solstice, is upon us once again. This year, here in the deeps of darkness, I’m thinking about The Fool’s journey.

The Fool, by Emily Balivet
https://www.etsy.com/listing/243456714/the-fool-tarot-art-original-acrylic

The Fool is an archetype, a recurrent symbol in mythology, folklore and story. Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk is a Fool. The Fool shows up as a simpleton, an innocent, one who is ignorant, inexperienced and silly. Archetypes have two sides, shadow and light. In modern culture The Fool has been reduced to its shadow, its most negative attributes, an insult, a curse and a contemptuous label.

But the old tales hint at a deeper, older meaning of the archetype. In fairy tales, The Fool is often the youngest sibling, the least able and powerful character, who nevertheless becomes the only one to successfully complete the task or quest. Often, The Fool has a good heart, or some extraordinary purity of character that allows him/her to be successful. The Fool has faith in magic, in talking birds and beasts, in the advice of old women, in objects given by peddlers at crossroads. To be a fool is to be held in a circle containing everything and nothing, to be without judgement, rules, expectations, cynicism or fear. The Fool is an archetype of youthful energy, bright, glowing and optimistic, filled with hopes and dreams.

Characters of this archetype set out, sometimes exiled or driven from their home, sometimes volunteering to go, with nothing but their shining confidence, intuition and willingness to do a task or find a solution. They rarely have external resource, but carry a great wealth of internal assets, including, interestingly, a kind of innocent cleverness that arises from authenticity and the simplicity of great integrity. The Fool has everything she or he needs in the form of untapped, chaotic potential.

It seems to me we’ve lost sight of the sacred role of The Fool. We kill foolish behavior with punishment, restriction, control, mocking and tribal shaming. We teach our children to avoid playing The Fool by making “good” choices. We avoid looking or feeling like fools. Foolishness is equated with immaturity, irresponsibility and naiveté. We resist being wrong or admitting we made a mistake. Playfulness is no longer a priority.

I see The Fool as an essential first step in The Hero’s journey. It’s where we all start as we undertake any new experience or endeavor. All Heroes start out as Fools, and perhaps all Fools are also Heroes. The Fool archetype creates space in which we learn resilience, strength, courage and creative problem solving. In the gap between The Fool’s happy hopes and dreams and reality is the place where Self is shaped, and the more fully we embrace this archetype, the more of our own potential we realize.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

That’s what I believe, when I think carefully about it, but that’s not how I show up in the world.

I hate to feel like a fool. Humiliation is one of the most uncomfortable emotions I experience. I dread appearing irresponsible or naïve. I’ve bought into the cultural definition of foolishness equaling stupidity, and I don’t want to be perceived as stupid. I’ve been warned at the beginning of every Fool’s journey I’ve embarked upon with head shaking, patronizing smiles and dire, ominous warnings: “You have no idea how hard marriage is.” “Boy, is your life going to change!” “You’re going to hate it!” “You’ll find out I was right!” “It won’t last.” “Nothing will ever be the same.”

As a parent, I shook my own head, smiled patronizingly and issued warnings. I wanted to protect my sons from “bad” choices, from danger, from illness and injury and from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment, the very things that help us figure out who we are.

The Fool is an archetype precisely because it’s so persistent and present in our lives, because it’s our nature to go into the world and explore, seek, complete tasks and engage in quests. I wonder what it would be like if we all framed The Fool’s journey as sacred space, as a necessary and beautiful rite of passage, filled with potential and promise. In that case, revisiting this archetype throughout our lives at any age could be viewed as a chance to refresh our willingness, consent and curiosity about ourselves and what might be possible, a chance to apply the skills we’ve learned in our previous cycles as The Fool rather than stay frozen in bitterness, shame, regret and fear.

It’s true that every new journey is a risk. None of us could have imagined what it would be like to be an adult, to fall in love, to get married, to have children, to move across the country, to get the perfect job, to battle illness or injury, to age. Dire warnings and ominous predictions are pointless and useless as we navigate in our lives. Sincere and simple congratulations from others; faith in our own intuition, intelligence and strength and the experience of unconditional love and belief in our abilities from friends and family is what we need as we push forward in search of new horizons.

Yule signals the return of the light and new beginnings. We all embark on a new cycle, and none of us knows what it will bring. The Fool is tying together a bundle of food and setting out, following a new road into an unknown place, exploring, perhaps searching for something. Interested, curious, fearless and confident, The Fool begins to walk into the future as the light strengthens once more.

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

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

Making a List, Checking it Twice

It occurred to me this morning that, in general, I’m still confused about what I want.

I’ve had a tumultuous history with my own wants. At some point, very early, as I was learning to be a people pleaser, I gave up wanting anything because I thought it was bad. What I understood was that everyone else’s wants were far more important, and it was my more-than-full-time job to provide those wants rather than selfishly have my own. With rare exceptions, that’s been my modus operandi my whole life.

When I went through a life coaching and emotional intelligence program, my coach suggested that I had a perfect right to get my needs met, and he defined some of my “wants” as needs, for example my longing for community and connection. I was enraged. Nobody had ever before made such an outrageous proposal. He clearly didn’t understand the terrible vulnerability of needing or wanting anything from anyone. Having the right to get needs and wants met was the most ludicrous, dangerous piece of heresy I’d ever heard.

That was four years ago, and I’m as angry about it now as I was the first time I heard it.

I also can’t leave the idea alone. I think about it all the time.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I picture my needs and wants as a snarling chained wolf with blazing eyes, nothing but matted grey hair over bones, backed into a tight corner, determined to go down fighting.

I grieve, literally, to admit that I chained it there myself. I chained it without food, water or shelter, and walked away–for decades. During those years of neglect, it starved and thirsted. It suffered alone with no help, no hope, a solitary prisoner.

I’ve done a lot of animal rescue work in my time, and I know that sometimes an animal is just too far gone to rehabilitate. Sometimes you can save their bodies, but the abuse and neglect they’ve suffered has damaged their will to live and their ability to trust and connect, and rescue comes too late. Sometimes, against all odds, some strength of heart or spirit survives and an animal accepts affection and care, but its body is too starved or broken to heal.

Part of what I’ve been doing since I’ve come to Maine is to try to rescue my chained wolf, this piece of self that I rejected, denied and tried to destroy.

It’s a long process, filled with grief, shame and anger. It takes determination, patience, and the willingness to own my history, my pain and my choices, as well as consenting to my responsibility for my own self-healing. Overcoming internal taboos is desperately hard work, and Wanting is one of my oldest taboos.

Sometime last year I wrote a list titled “Things to Want.” It was short and consisted of necessities, mostly. After a lot of hesitation, I added two things that were not necessary but I just … wanted. It felt wrong. It felt shameful. I left the list on my desk and over the following days and weeks I looked at it as I went about my life. About eight months later I bought one of the unnecessary things, a perfumed body oil that I love. It cost about $25.

It was like offering a little bit of bland food to my starving wolf, pushing it near with a stick so as to avoid getting mauled. Not so much food as to make it sick, but a place to start.

Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash

This morning, in the pause of winter and our first big snowstorm, my partner and I talked about our plans, our dreams, and our progress. Later, I went out to walk in the snow and I suddenly saw another layer to wanting, another step closer to making amends to my chained wolf.

Wanting is just the beginning. Making a Christmas list is only the top step. What’s the list under the Christmas list, and the list under that? What is it that I really want, independent of anyone else? What about the dreams I hold in common with no one, that are just about and for me? If I was free–If my wolf could bound through the snowy landscape and disappear into the Yule forest–what would I want? If we could escape judgement, our own and others’; escape for a moment our stories and labels and self-definitions; escape family, social and tribal expectations; escape our ideology (most imprisoning of all) and want, honestly, nakedly, with all our hearts, what would that Christmas list look like?

In other words, it’s not about the perfumed body oil (Aphrodisian Fire, by the way, from Kate’s Magik). It’s about touch, scent and caring for my thinning skin. It’s about deliberately honoring my own feminine sensuality.

I don’t need any particular product, cosmetic, clothing, gizmo or piece of technology in order to honor my own feminine sensuality, although there are plenty of things to buy that might support that want, including Aphrodisian Fire, but I see now those are really just symbols. I have the power to honor my sensuality in the way I live — in the choices I make about who I connect with and how, and how I treat myself.

Photo by Caley Dimmock on Unsplash

Santa hasn’t got my choices in his sleigh.

I’m very attached to the dreams my partner and I hold in common. I love our vision, and I’m invested in it. It’s going to take a lot of money, and we don’t have that right now.

Maybe we won’t ever have it.

Maybe I was a damn fool (again) and I should never, never, have listened to someone who says it’s okay to have needs and want them met. Maybe I should walk away from my wolf again, and this time never come back. Let it starve to death.

But maybe our grand vision and plans are only the top layers of what I really want. Maybe the plan is the wrapping paper around the real treasures of self-reliance; living as part of a complex, self-sustaining system; building independence from the energy grid and a culture I largely can’t support; fostering community and trusting in my greatest joy … writing.

I don’t have to wait for the plan to happen to have those things. I don’t need money. I don’t need to wait for someone else. I don’t need to brutally imprison or eliminate my wants and needs. I can be learning, building and transforming my life right now, today, from the inside out. I can, day by day, draw a step closer to my wolf with food, with water, with a gentle hand and with compassion, and maybe, one day, come close enough to remove the chain and let the poor creature go free and wild into the world, wanting and needing as it will.

So, I’m making a list and checking it twice. Or three times. I’m peering underneath the items, things, objects, stuff on that list. What is it I really want? What am I really longing for? And if I look under that, what do I find? What are the deepest wants and needs?

Wanting. My daily crime. Just in time for Christmas.

Photo by Galina N on Unsplash

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