Tag Archives: addiction

The Art of Community

 

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Saturday night I attended a monthly open mic event called The Coffeehouse. It took place in the basement of a local church, which is also where our Tai Chi group meets. People came from far and wide to participate. I was there to tell stories for the first time since I came to Maine.

My partner came with me, and I knew two other people there from Tai Chi. Otherwise, everyone was a stranger. I sat quietly in a corner and watched the place gradually fill up. I could see that many of these folks were old friends. In fact, during the course of the evening I learned that The Coffeehouse has been happening for more than 20 years in that very basement, hosted by the same man since the beginning. I heard stories, both on mic and off, of cancer, divorces, moves, jobs, remarriage and grandchildren.

Cases were opened and out came guitars of every description. Musicians sat together, teaching one another chords and fingering, and playing together. Ragged sheet music, song lyrics and notes lay on every table. In front of the mic, I heard about being a cafe musician, playing music for weddings, and stories from a couple who composes, writes and performs music together, splitting their time between Arizona and Maine.

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One man stood up and read a short story he’d written. Another gave a hilarious rendition of a Shel Silverstein poem I used to read aloud myself as an elementary school librarian. Yet another read one of his own poems in between playing his guitar. A woman performed on her autoharp.

Many of the performers expressed nervousness, but each was volubly supported by the audience. Jokes were cracked, stories exchanged. Everyone was applauded warmly, including me.

When it was my turn, I stood before them, my heart throbbing uncomfortably in my chest, looking out at a roomful of faces I’d never seen before. I introduced myself briefly and told a short peace tale from China, followed by a longer story from Jane Yolen. The audience was generous, attentive. The memory of other, more familiar audiences in my old place was poignant and caught at my throat. As I wove the stories, I looked from face to face, speaking directly to each one as though we were alone. Their expressions softened as they entered into the stories with me, seeing what I was seeing and feeling what I was feeling. I know my own face wore exactly that expression as I listened to their music and songs.

Each performer took his or her fifteen minutes or so to share their art. It was a long night. In fact, it started about the same time I like to be heading for bed. Yet that evening fed something in me that’s been starving for three years. I had a strange sense of coming home, of belonging and kinship.

Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash

My partner and I talk a lot about community, how essential it is, how to create it, how to join it and how to support it. I believe, as humans, we must find some kind of community to meet our connection needs if we want to live well. We’re social animals, and I think we’re beginning to see the high cost of isolation and disconnection play out in suicide rates, violence and addiction.

The Coffeehouse clarified for me an aspect of community I haven’t really discerned before. Right now, the world is chaotic and increasingly complex. We’re faced with serious issues and changes that we’re ill-equipped to deal with. I’ve been thinking about the local food movement, grassroots politics, permaculture, and alternative energy and housing through the lens of community. All of those issues are vitally important, and becoming more so by the day, but I’ve been skipping over the most important thing that community can give us, the aspect that must be present, supported and nurtured before any kind of problem solving or effective organization can happen.

The Coffeehouse is, essentially, an adult playgroup. I heard nothing about diet, gun control,  immigration, politics or climate change. I heard nothing about social justice or gender politics. We all shared the same bathroom, the same coffee and snacks. We all put a voluntary donation in the basket. Instruments were shared. We shared time, microphones, personal stories and creativity. There was no talk of cultural appropriation.

We laughed together.

We played together.

We were kind and generous with each other.

We took turns.

As I sat there watching it unfold, it occurred to me to wonder how we’re ever going to manage to address all the pressing problems in the world today if we can’t come together as human beings and play with one another first. How do we find our way to collaboration and cooperation unless we build trust and respect and are able to just have fun together? The Coffeehouse showed me humans at their best. Heck, I was at my best. In such a warm and supportive atmosphere, my social anxiety was not disabling. People talked to me, welcomed me, expressed appreciation for the stories and received my appreciation for their contribution in return. I recognized that several who performed were more nervous than I was. None of us were hiding behind technological screens. There was no escaping a forgotten lyric, the wrong chord or symptoms of performance anxiety. One of the musicians talked ruefully about a new tremor in his hands that impeded his playing. We could all see it. He played anyway.

In the days since The Coffeehouse, I know I’ve found something I’ve been looking for since I came to Maine. I thought I just wanted a place to share stories again, and I do, but this gathering is about something much bigger than that. This is about mutual authenticity, creativity, contribution and play. It’s about friends. It’s about celebration and connection in the midst of a dark and stormy time.

I can hardly wait for the next one.

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

Selchie

Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.

I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.

I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.

I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for my second book, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.

Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.

A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries  the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises that after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.

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It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.

As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.

Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.

I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.

I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.

I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, seeking, fleeing and climbing ladders that we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.

What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expected to be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.

On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.

I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.

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For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.

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At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I laid awake at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.

I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.

By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?

The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.

Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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

Alchemy

Alchemy: A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination (online Oxford Dictionaries).

The Star

Emotional intelligence training opened my eyes to the power of needs in our human experience. Coming to terms with my own needs catapulted me into a new life. During the months in which I learned to navigate through my feelings, needs (click here for needs inventories), limiting beliefs and stories, I kept coming back around to the same question.

If I accept that all human beings have needs, and a right to have them met, what then do I do with my unmet needs, past and present?

We might all have a right to get our needs met, but that doesn’t mean we have a guarantee they will be met, or that we can hold anyone responsible for meeting them. We can meet some of our own needs, but not every one. Some needs require healthy connections with others, but not everyone has that. Some people don’t have a single healthy connection with another human being, let alone many, and one relationship can’t meet all our needs.

Unmet needs are devastating, make no mistake. They drive addiction, all kinds of violence and power-over behavior (like school shootings), mental and physical disease and illness, and suicide. A chronically unmet need is a nonhealing, stinking ulcer on the soul. We may hide it from others and even ourselves, but it never stops oozing blood and pus. Unmet needs can cripple and/or kill us. We can let go of some people, behavior and beliefs, but needs are intrinsic.

None of us can entirely meet another’s needs. We all have limitations of some kind, and finite resources of time and energy. Being unable to meet another’s needs is not necessarily because we’re unloving or uncaring. Most of our close relationships probably do meet some of our needs some of the time, and we meet some of their needs some of the time. It’s not black or white. It’s a continuum, a balance of reciprocity.

So, I ask again, what about our needs that just don’t get met because even our healthy connections are unable to fill them?

At that point we make choices. We can choose to:

  • Act out in some desperate, destructive or deadly way that hurts ourselves or others.
  • Blame the people around us for failing to meet our needs.
  • Blame ourselves for having needs and feeling the pain of having them unmet.
  • Deny that we need anything from anyone — ever.
  • Figure out how to neutralize the experience of unmet needs.

By neutralize, I mean accept and surrender to how painful it is to carry around a bone-deep, persistent longing for something that’s unavailable.

Acting out has never been my style. I’m also not much interested in blaming others for what goes wrong in my life. It feels like a cop-out and it disempowers me. Blaming myself — now that I’m very good at. I’ve spent years perfecting the art of self-loathing, but it’s never been helpful. Not even one time. Besides that, it hurts. I can’t pull off denial, at least not for long. I might refuse to admit certain things to someone else, but I don’t play games like that in the privacy of my own head. I have a file in my documents labeled ‘Denial File.’ Now and then I put something in that file and leave it there while I wrestle with my unwillingness to believe. When I’m ready to stop arguing with what is, I take it out and re-file it. Usually, the Denial File is empty, but I like knowing it’s there for the really tough information.

That brings me to the last choice, which leaves me standing squarely in my power. I don’t hurt myself, I don’t hurt anyone else and I get to think outside of the box — my favorite thing! What kind of alchemy transforms, creates or combines an unmet need into something beautiful?

For several months I’ve been researching outer space for my second book. I’ve compiled lists of constellations and the mythology around them. I have definitions of meteors, comets and nebulae. I’ve spent hours looking at images from space. Astounding, mysterious, vast and lovely, the universe is infinitely larger than the largest playing field I can imagine. I gulp down science fiction books and I’ve watched hours and days and weeks of Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and yes, yes, Star Wars!

I also, fairly frequently, turn up The Star card when I work with my Tarot deck. The Star symbolizes creative powers, confidence and diversity.

So, what if I create a cosmos? Great word, cosmos. It means “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole” (online Oxford Dictionaries). I’m always in favor of well-ordered, especially when I get to define it. All the pieces of my experience, including unmet needs, are part of a whole. I prefer combination and integration to amputation.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Here I am, with my unmet needs, my history, the people who have been significant in my life and a lot of passionate feelings to express and process. I’m an alchemist, a creator, and before me is a vast black nothingness.

I want stars in my cosmos, so every tear I’ve ever cried becomes a star. I fling them far and wide, like handfuls of tiny crystals. My cosmos is so vast there’s always room for more.

I want planets in my cosmos. I hang them carefully, one by one. These are the people in my life, past and present, living and dead. Some are hot planets, sere and lifeless. Others are cool and green and blue. Every cosmos needs a bloviating, bullying gas giant with heavy gravity that sucks more than its fair share of, well, everything! Rings are decorative, and spots and alien seas and strangely-shaped continents. Also, sand dunes and storms, poisonous (to us) gases, radiation, erupting volcanoes, mountain ranges and glaciers.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

How about moons? Cool and sterile or lush and verdant; I definitely want moons. I want constellations, too, and stories to go with them. Blazing meteors and trailing comets add movement. Nebulae add color and mystery. Galaxies swirl and spiral or spill like ribbons of milk against the darkness. Black holes suck. Suns supernova.

One by one, I use my unmet needs to decorate my cosmos. I turn them into color, texture, pattern, alien world, moon, star, sun, comet, meteor and nebula. I name them, animate them with feeling, polish them like jewels and set them in place. Maybe they stay in the farthest reaches of my cosmos, where I rarely visit them, or maybe I keep them closer. Perhaps my unmet needs appear from time to time in a meteor shower or a comet with a long tail, and I marvel at their beauty and mystery and remember again their taste and feel before they burn away to ash or disappear behind a planet.

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

My cosmos is my laboratory and my kitchen, illuminated by starlight. I stir and simmer over the heat of suns; chop and mix under waxing and waning moons; grind alien insects, rocks and roots for pigment and infuse gas and cosmic dust with color. I orbit, I dance from galaxy to galaxy in bare feet, combine a pinch of this with a handful of that until I float, weightless and free, in a cosmos of my own design and decoration.

Whenever the world is too much with me and I find myself staggering under burdens of unmet needs and other things I cannot release, I unlock a hidden door with the key I carry between my breasts and find star candles lit, suns asimmer, planets revolving and black holes lurking. Mortar and pestle, cauldron and crucible wait for my magical offerings as I combine, create and transform the material of my life into a complex and resplendent whole.

Alchemy. My daily crime.

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

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