Kissing Frogs

Years ago, during a conversation about men, a girlfriend of mine said, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that observation, and I’ve never forgotten the way it made me smile. Now, it’s all over the Internet, but then we weren’t numbed by such a constant bombardment of memes and phrases.

One does have to kiss a lot of frogs in life. Roommates from hell, jobs we hate, the nether regions of those more powerful than we are, all require a certain amount of kissing. Then there are sticky-faced children kisses; big-hearted sloppy dog kisses; and, my personal favorite, sandpaper cat kisses that remove the top layer of skin from one’s nose.

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The central preoccupation of kissing, of course, is the “romantic” kiss. We quickly learn that some kisses are more romantic than others. A lot of our personal kissing history is hurriedly filed away under the label “What Was I Thinking?” and we try to forget about it.

When I really consider it, I realize we spend much more time kissing frogs than anything else. Someone should write a manual. (Poor little frogs. I’m very fond of them. I wonder if they have metaphors about kissing princes in hopes they turn into frogs. It would only be fair.)

Leaving an old, familiar place and coming to a new one reminds me how many frogs are out there, waiting to be kissed, especially in this season when the night shrills with the insistent songs of a variety of species from tiny peepers the size of a thumbnail to enormous bullfrogs. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to make new friends. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to find someone to cut my hair, a massage therapist, a dentist, a doctor, and a health food store.

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Kissing frogs takes time, and I get discouraged. I’ve never been comfortable socially. I hate trying to make a connection with strangers. I know intellectually that for every ten times I reach out to another, nine times it will be another dead end, but the tenth time something wonderful will happen. Persistence and patience do pay off.

I’ve spent my life with books. I was reading before Kindergarten (thank you, Richard Scarry, Mom and Dad). Our home was always filled with books. I have a library degree and I’ve worked in a public library and an elementary school library. In my old place, I did volunteer work for a used bookstore run by the local Friends of the Library.

I came to Maine with more than 30 boxes of books, and that was after a severe culling. My partner has at least as many books in his own library. This old farmhouse is positively groaning with our combined libraries, and we’re in desperate need of more shelving. I was disappointed to find a less robust library program than I was used to in the nearest town, and no bookstore of any kind. My first year here, I did hear of a used bookstore in a college town about 30 minutes away, and my partner and I agreed we’d go check it out.

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Three and a half years later, I finally made up my mind to stop shillyshallying around and go find that bookstore. I made a date with myself, pulled out maps, informed my partner I was going, dammit!, and we went.

Heaven. Bliss. Home. Shelves and boxes and unstable stacks of books on every surface. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books. Chairs and stepstools and round stools. Old encyclopedias. Children’s books. A huge table covered in a tornado of books.

I headed for the farthest back corner and started working my way forward through nonfiction hardback, plays, poetry, and then fiction.

A long time later, I went in search of the store owner, who was talking with my much more gregarious and extroverted partner in the casual fashion of men getting to know one another. Without preamble, I asked the owner if he had any use for a volunteer experienced in library and bookstore work. We were standing in a room I hadn’t explored yet that looked as though it had been the site of an explosion. Later, I found out that a pipe had burst and flooded the place.

He thought this was a fine idea, and said I could start that minute. He also said he’d pay me in books (I made a valiant effort not to drool in front of him). I didn’t want to start that minute, so I declined, and I could tell he thought I didn’t mean it, not really. I said we’d talk. I went back to browsing, smiling to myself.

A couple hours, a heavy box and $145 later, we emerged, happy and grubby. I’d made a date to return, but the owner didn’t think I really would.

On Monday, as promised, I returned precisely on the dot of 12:15 p.m., the time he requested.

He’d hurriedly emptied several bookcases at the time of the flood, and disassembled shelves to get them out of the way. He’d been working to get the shelves back up and wanted me to load them. I asked if I could wipe down the shelves first. A raised eyebrow and surprised agreement. He found a bucket and a rag and I got to work while he searched among towering piles of heavy boxes for the books that belonged on the shelves. This was the general fiction mass market paperback section. He wanted me to weed out science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery for other sections. He also wanted me to weed out duplicates, choosing the best copy for the shelf.

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So began four glorious hours of squatting, bending, kneeling, sorting and alphabetizing. A bookstore invariably reflects the place it’s in. In Colorado, we had a Colorado section, naturally, featuring Colorado authors and artists. We also had a big Western section featuring Louis L’Amour and other Western writers. In Maine, there’s a Maine section and history and biography focused on the founding of the colonies, mills and seafaring. Also, a lot of political nonfiction.

The fiction is heavy on Richard Russo, Bill Roorbach, Annie Proulx and other Maine writers, as well as, of course, shelves of Stephen King.

I emptied box after box. I filled one of the empty boxes with duplicates and started another. I made leaning piles of mystery, fantasy and science fiction for other sections. Customers came and went, stepping around my boxes, bucket and piles, browsing with the quiet intensity of true booklovers. Robert, the owner, moved boxes around, answered the phone and hummed under his breath. I put aside a few books I wanted to take home.

Four hours passed like a happy dream. I asked if I could come again. He said yes, he’d be delighted. We made a date. He’s still not entirely convinced I’ll be there, but that’s okay. He’ll learn to trust me.

Coming out of the door into the spring afternoon, I was exhausted, my back ached, my hands were filthy and I was absolutely happy. I’ve found a way to volunteer again, to make a contribution doing something I love and believe in. I’ve found a place to belong with people I have something in common with.

I kissed a frog and this time it turned into a prince.

I drove home along the Kennebec River, watching the waterbirds and enjoying the budding trees, pools of blue hyacinths and banks of daffodils. It’s strange, the things that give our lives the greatest meaning. I thought of the frogs in every pool, pond and puddle right now, in every river and stream, singing, peeping, croaking and chuckling. How many women would look at a disordered, slightly down-at-heel used bookstore and see a prince?

I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m happy. I have that excited feeling of anticipation we get when a new door opens. Through books and volunteer work I’ve found dear friends, great jobs, meaning and purpose. Dreams I didn’t know I had have come true.

Not every kiss is a new beginning. Not every frog is a prince. Every book, though, opens onto a world, and a building full of new worlds can’t help but be overflowing with magic, power and possibility. I’m glad I didn’t give up on kissing frogs. Maybe that bookstore has been waiting for me as persistently as I’ve been searching for it.

Kissing frogs. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

A Specific for Vampires

I’ve never really thought much about vampires. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teenager, but I didn’t get into Anne Rice and I didn’t watch TV for nearly 20 years. When I came to Maine, my partner immediately set out to correct my cultural deprivation. He introduced me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I fell in love with, which led to Angel. Then there was True Blood and Jace Everett’s sexy song, “I Want to do Bad Things With You,” along with a lot of other sultry Cajun music.

James Marsters as Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

The aspect of vampires I was familiar with was the archetypal one. We’ve all run into people like this. They’re the ones we walk away from with a feeling of having been drained, no matter how brief, inconsequential or seemingly innocent the interaction was. Sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly how they manage to suck all the energy out of any given person or situation, but they do. They’re insatiable and dangerous. I suppose they might be sexy, too, but not in the straightforward, I-wanna-do-bad-things-with-you-way where you both get to have fun. They’re all about the fuel, and others are just fuel-dispensing appliances.

These vampire series, characters, actors and writers added a lot of good creative manure to my already robust interest in all things magical, archetypal and mythological. Lately I had an idea for a writing project within the frame of plants and trees with thorns, and I wanted to revisit vampires within that context.

Well! Little did I know what a goldmine I would find.

I have a well-used reference library of witchcraft, folklore, myth, legend, symbology, magic and occult, not to mention the internet. Any kind of magic intersects with herbs and plants, so I have a lot of reference books covering those subjects as well. I began to think about thorny plants I’m familiar with. The most obvious, as they grow all over our land here in Maine, are brambles. Bramble, it turns out, is a lovely old-fashioned word that can mean blackberries or raspberries. I began to research folklore surrounding brambles.

I happily juggled my laptop and handwritten notes. Books piled up on the floor around my chair. I lost track of time.

I discovered that brambles are a specific (meaning remedy) for vampires. Who knew? If you are bothered by a vampire, you need only cut some bramble canes and lay them in front of your windows and on your threshold. When the vampire arrives in the dark hours to drink from you, it will be unable to pass the bramble canes until it counts every thorn. This task should keep it well occupied until sunrise, at which point it will be forced to decamp.

I was enchanted by the vision of a sensual, dark, hollow-cheeked vampire, intent on seduction and blood, hunched over outside the window trying to count the thorns on a bramble by the light of the moon. (Do mature (ahem) vampires need reading glasses for close-up work?) Picture his slumbering victim, young, palpitating, curving flesh on tempting display as she sleeps naked amid the tumbled sheets. So delectable! The smell of her flesh! The sweet throbbing pulse at her neck — and other places! Alas! He must stop to count the thorns. The cruelty of life! Or maybe I should say the cruelty of undeath.

How is it I’d never known that vampires had this particular compulsive side to their character? Why does no one ever talk about these important things?

This was too juicy a lure to ignore, so I temporarily abandoned my research on thorns and collected a new pile of books to see what else I didn’t know about vampires.

Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash

Interestingly, the Christian cross and so-called holy water were not traditionally used to repel vampires. (All due respect to Buffy and Angel.) The vampire is an ancient universal archetype recognized well before Christianity in cultures all over the world.

That being said, there are several plants that assist in vampire protection, one of them being the old stand-by, garlic. This can be used fresh or dried. Another protective plant is peppermint. Presumably, vampires dislike the smell. The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells suggests wearing fresh peppermint leaves around one’s neck in bed, and adds parenthetically that peppermint is an aphrodisiac. Perhaps part of the efficacy of this old spell is that one will not be alone in the bed.

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Both garlic and peppermint can be used fresh or dried, in combination or singly. If you know from whence the vampire rises, garlic scattered over its grave should keep it firmly underground where it can do no harm. Peppermint oil is also said to be efficacious, applied topically to the skin or pillow (of the intended victim, not the vampire). Surprisingly, lilac oil is also recommended. This is quite hard to find even today, and very expensive. (How was this discovered, and where? How was the oil procured?) The spell clearly specifies it must be essential oil from the lilac, not a chemical perfume. Interestingly, a remedy for psychic vampires, as opposed to the coarser blood drinkers, was infused rosemary taken as a tea or used to bathe in.

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Iron is very commonly used as protection against many otherworldly folk, and vampires don’t like it, either. An iron ring set with pearls is said to protect the wearer from vampires. (Why this combination? Where did this belief come from?) Also, if one takes more than 100 iron nails and hammers them into the ground over the vampire’s grave, it will not be able to rise. Similarly, in what is clearly an old bit of women’s witchcraft, if one drives nine wooden spindles into the ground over the grave three days after burial, the vampire will not be able to rise.

I liked all that, but many of these protections are quite similar to other specifics for various spooks, haunts, ghosts and fairy folk. I’ve saved the good stuff for last.

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It turns out that everyone used to know vampires are obsessive compulsive! If one doesn’t happen to have brambles, fishing nets can be used at windows and doorways. In this case, the vampire has to stop and count the knots. Or, if you prefer, sieves can be used, because they have to stop and count — you guessed it — the holes. This makes me think about our modern screens. Here was I, thinking it was all about keeping out the bugs. Nobody ever told me we were keeping out vampires as well. Alternatively, one can sprinkle millet in the graveyard where a vampire is buried, and it won’t be able to leave until it counts every millet seed.

This changes things. I wonder if this is the vampires’ dirty little secret. Maybe all the dark brooding looks, swirling cloaks, drama and theater is just distraction from what they don’t want anyone to find out — that they’re compelled to count. It definitely dulls my frisson of erotic fear. I wanna do bad things with you — as soon as I count this. What if the vampire’s prey has freckles? It almost makes me feel sorry for them. Keeping secrets is hard work. Think of the relief when people switched over to Christian crosses and holy water and forgot about brambles, nets, millet and sieves (and freckles).

My absolute favorite vampire remedy, though, has nothing to do with counting. It involves the oldest cleaning and purification tool: running water. For this one, it’s necessary to know exactly where the vampire is buried. One must procure the vampire’s left sock. (The left sock, not the right. Is this further evidence of compulsivity? Do vampires label their socks left and right? Does one ask politely for the left sock, steal it while they sleep, or wrestle the vampire for it?) Fill the sock with dirt from the vampire’s grave and stones from the cemetery in which it’s buried. (What if it’s a sock with holes in it? Do vampires darn their socks?) Throw the sock into water running away from the area to be protected. Now you have banished the vampire from that area.

Finally, for all you peacemakers out there, here’s fokloric advice from the Romani people of Macedonia. Vampires, it transpires, love milk. Romani legend says that if one makes regularly scheduled offerings of milk to a troublesome vampire, it will agree to leave a short list of people alone.

(This is beyond fascinating. What other traditions and folklore come from this group of people? Who were they? Do they still live tribally? Were their milking animals cows, sheep or goats? Do they have written or oral records? Why are they the only ones who figured out a peaceful coexistence practice regarding vampires? But no, that’s probably carrying it too far for this post. I can research that another time. Do they have protective spells against werewolves, I wonder? Hmmm …)

There you go. Now you know everything you need to know to protect yourselves from vampires. You’re welcome. I hope you’re half as delighted as I am by this esoteric lore.

Before I leave you this week, I do want to say that I am in no way minimizing or mocking the suffering of those who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and like illnesses. I write this post in the spirit of playfulness and fun. Please accept it as such.

David Boreanaz as Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)

Hand me that bramble branch, will you? Where are my glasses? Let me see … one, two, three …

How long until sunrise?

 

 

 

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Aging With Grace

It’s strange to be aging, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you’re in your 20s or 60s, getting older is a remarkable experience. As I move through my 50s, I see more and more of my life when I look over my shoulder and I no longer have the feeling of limitless horizons in front of me. Whatever is ahead, it’s not limitless.

I have a friend who looks at a tape measure and finds the number of inches that corresponds to his age. He takes in the distance between the end of the tape and his place at 70 something. Then he puts his finger at another 10 years, another 15 years. The visual on this exercise is startling. What happened to all those years of our life, and when did we move so close to our last day?

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For at least a decade now I’ve been watching my elders and trying to figure out how to age gracefully. Every now and then I meet a remarkable elder. They have a twinkle in their eye, they laugh a lot, they’re curious and interested and they’re wonderfully authentic. I want to grow up to be just like that.

I’m convinced that the great keys to aging gracefully are staying in intimate connection with ourselves every single day, no matter how old we are, and embracing change like a lover. Without consent and resilience, aging becomes a bitter battle to the end.

So many of us, as we age, live increasingly in the past. It’s understandable. We’ve been, done and seen a lot. The problem is as the years roll over us we don’t update our software. We hang on to what we were, what our bodies could do, how it all was during a time we remember as the best time (or at least a better time than now). We continue to define ourselves by outdated habits and routines. I’m not sure if this is a function of nostalgia or weariness or just plain laziness, but somewhere along the way we cross some invisible finish line, stop paying attention to embracing how things are right now and start waiting to die.

As our software gets more and more out of date, incompatibilities arise between how we show up in the world and our stories and memories. We lose credibility and effectiveness.

It seems to me the day we stop being curious about what we might learn, do or be next is the day our lives really end. People who age gracefully still have plans. They still dream. Their thinking remains flexible, even if their bodies don’t. They find some magical balance between letting go and moving forward. Change becomes a beloved friend rather than a feared enemy.

It’s not hard to see this in small external ways. We hang on to clothing, for example, that no longer fits, or was fashionable for a fleeting moment fifteen years ago. We hang on to books or movies or music we once loved and couldn’t do without, but now have outgrown. I don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with such nostalgia, but I do think all that stuff can pile up around us and block a clear view of what is now, or what might be ahead. Too often, the externals mirror our internal habits.

I notice that many people my age still describe themselves by a job or position they no longer have. Some folks seem almost apologetic about being retired, as though they’ve lost personhood in the world, have become nobody. Others tell you all about some beloved skill or activity, how they practiced it, the ways it enhanced their life, their mastery, but never mention that was all long ago and right now, today, that activity is no longer part of their lives. Their lives have changed, but they haven’t updated their sense of identity. They’re stuck in their past and missing their present. They dangle in the empty gap between who they were and the stranger they are now.

I think some people feel angry about aging. We want our bodies to look, feel and perform the way they used to. We refuse to adjust to our present physical realities because they don’t match what we used to be able to do. We’re ashamed of our changing bodies rather than comfortable in them. We fear the changes the years bring and try to hide them or resist them.

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

Then there are people, amazing people, who know the trick of beginning over and over again throughout their lives. They spend their professional years as a lawyer and then retire and become an artist. A woman marries, works, raises a family and then, divorced and in her 60s, begins traveling all over the world. People in their 50s and 60s go back to school and acquire a new skill or a degree. They live in the day they’re in, in right now, and they’re focused on the present and future rather than the past. They accommodate their physical needs, feel at home in their skin and are constantly updating their identity, intentions, connections and contributions.

Defining ourselves by our pasts is a sad business. I know aging can feel limiting, but I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it!

I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it.

Defining ourselves by what we can’t do, don’t do or once did (but no longer) is a terrible way to live at any age, but in old age it becomes a pernicious habit indeed. After all, anyone may have physical limitations at any age. Those limitations needn’t define us unless we invite them to.

Considering what is possible, what we can do, what we’d like to do and what we’ve always wanted to do — now, there’s a set of questions for living a full, rich life, today and tomorrow. An elder who draws wisdom from years of experience and has a well-exercised sense of humor, curiosity and the ability to learn is indomitable, irrepressible and irresistible.

Life brings many things, including devastating loss, injury and illness. Every day that we live we’re aging, and every day is a new gift we might choose to receive, or we might turn away and look only at the old gifts, the old days, all that came before when we were younger, better looking, stronger, more hopeful, more innocent.

I know what’s behind me. Some of it was grand and some very painful indeed, but it’s all over, good and bad. Many of the clothes I wore, the thoughts and beliefs I held firmly onto, the routines and rituals in my life that held meaning, are like so many dropped leaves, fluttering in the wind of my passing. I have no idea how much time I have left or what’s in front of me, but there’s so much I still want to do! Still, I cling to the past in some ways. I tell myself such-and-such (a lovely, longed-for thing) will never happen again. I say I can’t do XYZ instead of I’ve never done it before and will you teach me how? I feel frustrated and old when I wrestle with a 40-lb bag of bird seed and my back hurts for three days. I can be just as lazy, sulky, resistant and weary as anyone else.

Yet I’m convinced enormous grace lies in aging, if we can find it. I believe aging is full of invisible gifts, insight and strength. I want that grace. I don’t want to miss the last part of my life because I’m refusing to be present with it. I want to take the time to close all my programs and apps and let my psyche and body update and reboot regularly.

Aging with grace is a work in progress. Some days are more graceful than others.

My daily crime.

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted