Make Yourself Small

I’m getting ready to turn over the manuscript of my first book to a developmental editor. Getting ready means I’m doing one final read through and combing out overused words and phrases using the search (and destroy) feature in my word processor. Over the months and years I’ve been working with my book and mastering the mechanics of writing, I’ve learned a lot about language and my own personal tics and patterns. The biggest problem I’ve found in my writing is unconsciously using passive voice.

On the face of it, the process of cleaning up a manuscript is straightforward and occasionally mind-numbingly tedious. Looking at 4000 plus occurrences of the word ‘was’ throughout 1000 plus pages is not filled with giggles and takes a long time. I entertain myself with battleship noises every time I eliminate ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘had’, or ‘have’. I also come up with amusing similes for the process. My favorite is that editing is like combing nits out of a child’s hair.

On the plus side, this practice opens up a lot of time in which to notice my unconscious language patterns and think about how my word choice reflects my choices in every other aspect of life. Editing word by word in this way is also a great habit breaker. When I write ‘had’ or ‘have’ now I notice it and I stamp on it immediately.

In the past, I’ve also overused ‘gently’, ‘lightly’, ‘quietly’, ‘a little’, ‘went’ (that’s a common one), and ‘softly’. As these patterns become visible to me, I ask myself with some annoyance, why not ‘fiercely’, ‘loudly’, ‘a LOT’ or ‘strode, galloped or dashed’?

I’ll tell you why not. Because I’m female and my culture has successfully taught me to make myself small. That lesson is so central and ubiquitous that I’ve only recently been able to identify it and begin to organize resistance. The message is impossible to see until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it.

Do you know the old French fairy tale of Bluebeard? A serial wife killer instructs his latest victim to refrain from opening a door in his castle, the door a particular little key opens. Then he leaves her alone with his keys (of course). In his absence, Bluebeard’s young wife and her sisters explore the castle, opening every door, and (naturally) the wife is persuaded there’s no harm in just peeking behind that last forbidden locked door. In the room they discover a row of headless bodies and a pile of heads belonging to Bluebeard’s previous wives. They exit the room (as you might imagine) and conspire to pretend they never unlocked the door. The only problem is the little key that unlocked the door begins to weep drops of blood and nothing they can do makes it stop. Bluebeard returns, discovers the infraction, and … I won’t tell you what happens, because different versions of the story end differently. This fairy tale is embedded in my own book, The Hanged Man, as well. The point is, once some things are understood and seen, they can’t be unseen. There is no going back.

The Roaming Gypsy Angel

So, consider this commandment with me: Make Yourself Small.

  • Adhere to the arbitrary cultural ideal of acceptable attractiveness. If you can’t, hate your body, torture it, starve it, distort it, color it, shave it and beat it into compliance. Make yourself conform.
  • Let the media, social media, experts, professionals, your favorite news channel or radio host, your religious leader or the men in your life tell you what to believe and what to think. Don’t you bother your pretty little head trying to understand anything.
  • Make your sexuality, passion and lust small. In fact, make them invisible (you slut).
  • Make your intelligence nonthreatening.
  • Tame your creativity.
  • Don’t ask questions. Don’t search for clarity and truth. Don’t do your own research. Restrain your curiosity.
  • If you must have needs, make them as infinitesimal as possible. Your needs are dust in the wind compared to the convenience, habits and preferences of others.
  • Be silent! You are disqualified from having an opinion. Don’t tell your truth. Others are speaking. Censor your voice.
  • Capture, restrain, cage, shackle, chain and abandon your dreams. Who do you think you are?
  • Deny, belittle, smother and minimize your feelings. Control yourself!
  • Shame on you! Cringe, cower, hide your head! You’re bad and wrong!
  • Be self-contained. Be self-sufficient. Don’t take up too much space. Move lightly. Don’t spend too much money. Don’t be too dramatic. Don’t be too sensitive. Don’t order dessert. Don’t attract attention. Don’t breathe too much air. MAKE YOURSELF SMALL!

You get the idea, I’m sure. This list goes on and on. The message is everywhere, and we’re all affected. It cuts across social, racial, economic, political and gender divides. Failure to toe the line, whatever that line is, results in harsh social and professional consequences, up to and including death. Show me a headline and I’ll pick out this theme. I trip over it a dozen times a day in my own life. Spend five minutes on Facebook reading any thread on any subject and you’ll find this underlying message.

The surrounding cultural mandate to make ourselves small is toxic, but it’s not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is that we internalize the mandate before we’re even aware of it, and then it becomes so woven into the fabric of our experience we no longer discern it.

Ironically, stubbornly pursuing my passion for writing and my determination to be bigger is what reveals to me the outlines of my self-sabotage. My habit of making myself small has trickled all the way down to the words I choose. Editing my manuscript has become editing my thoughts and choices, and noticing the words I write and think in has helped me notice my feelings.

My feelings contain a lot of fury and a lot of rebellion, far more than I was aware of when I created this blog last summer. Minor friction with my partner about planning a day or how we utilize counter space taps into a deep vein of lifelong rage and pain about allowing and participating in my own repression and oppression. I have systematically colluded in my own erasure. I’ve agreed to make myself small. I’ve agreed to abdicate my power.

No more. I opened Bluebeard’s chamber, and saw what it contained. The key that unlocked the door was writing, and I’m deleting all the blood-stained words that make my art small. If I fail as a writer, I’m not going to do it softly, gently, lightly or a little. I’m going to do it thunderously, monumentally and profoundly.

Original art by David Wyatt

It’s time to make myself big.

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

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