Tag Archives: authenticity

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

Romance

I read a blog a few days ago titled ‘Romance Ruins Real Love’.

The blog reminded me of a conversation I had with an old friend some years ago. She said her favorite part of relationship was the first weeks, when everything is romantic anticipation and excitement. I remember how violently I disagreed with that view, though I didn’t say so to my friend at the time.

I never trust romance, because I don’t equate it with love. Even as a child, I was suspicious of princes on white horses. As an adult, I want a relationship that survives the flu, a broken toilet, a week-long power outage, job loss, poverty, a car accident, a road trip, moving house and painting a room together. Anyone can dress up, buy flowers and make a reservation, given adequate time, money and motivation. Anyone can make love with words. Many can show up for a great night between the sheets. Most of life, however, consists of day-to-day challenges, tasks and unexpected stuff that no one can prepare for, and that’s when we find out what we’re made of, as well as those around us.

Photo by Jan Phoenix on Unsplash

In spite of all that, I hunger for romance in my life. I always have.

I realized this week I couldn’t come up with a succinct definition of romance. I could write lists of what I find romantic, sensual or sexy, but how do those categories overlap into a central core of what romance actually is? As I sat down to begin this blog, I grabbed my Random House College Dictionary and was absolutely shocked at what I found.

Romance: A baseless, fanciful story; a love affair.

Wait, what? What about palpitating bosoms and muscled, shirtless heroes and wine and roses and diamonds? What about bikini waxes and lingerie, high heels, flowers, poetry, songs, movies and messages of love via social media? What about sex?

Is the whole world searching desperately for something that’s not even defined as real? I always thought it was real and attainable. I’ve thought of it as a rare phenomenon, a kind of shining miracle that can’t be bought or captured, that comes only to certain remarkable, young, beautiful and deserving people.

I’m ashamed to want romance. It’s not for someone like me, someone flawed, broken, aging, unbeautiful and in many ways unlovable (another of my stories). To dream of romance, to yearn for it, is pitiable and pathetic, and I keep such dreams well hidden, releasing them only in my writing.

I notice all of these thoughts and feelings about romance, all the shame, futility and bitterness associated with one word that means a baseless, fanciful story. Wow.

I paused in writing the blog and thought about Random House’s definition for a day. I decided the thing I find most disturbing about this definition is that it’s purely subjective. Do we each have a unique baseless, fanciful ideal we’re searching for or trying to create? I’ve written about stories  before. If my idea of romance is nothing but a baseless, fanciful story inside my head, it’s not about anybody else. It’s only about me. It’s not something I’ll ever discover out in the real world.

No wonder I haven’t been able to find it!

Huh.

If romance is just another of my stories, then it’s pointless to carry shame around because nobody will participate in my ideal. I’m the only one who can be responsible for my story. Nobody else even knows it, unless I tell it, and this is a private story I’m unwilling to reveal. My story of romance is part of who I am, a piece of vivid and passionate authenticity. It’s what I dance with and write with. I need it. It’s an aspect of myself to be nurtured and cherished, not ignored and denied.

Romance is not about them at all. It never has been. It’s about me.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

This is a place I’ve been before, although this time I’ve followed a different road to get here. When I lived alone in my own home in my old life, I became romantically self-reliant, as it were. I was lonely, but I realize now I was probably the most satisfied romantically I’ve ever been. I burned candles and incense. I bought flowers for myself. I took myself to the movies, to breakfast, out for pizza. I took long, luxurious baths with music and essential oils. I bought my favorite sexy underwear and wore it for my own enjoyment. I gave myself weekends away and night walks to watch the moonrise. I danced naked. I bought art cards I loved and mailed them to myself to mark special anniversaries and days.

Then I came to Maine and began life with my partner, and because I had a man in my life again, I gave up on romancing myself. I realized my new relationship is deeper and stronger than romance. I no longer feel lonely. Many of my needs are being met now that have never been met before. Life in central Maine in a 100+-year-old falling-down and leaky farmhouse with very little money is not romantic, however, and my partner is a pragmatic Yankee. He’s about as romantic as a rock. He loves me. I don’t want him to be different, and I recognize he is not equipped to satisfy my hunger for romance.

Well, no. But given the above definition, is anyone? Has my search for romance been in vain because what I long for isn’t out there at all, it’s in here? Was it my responsibility all along?

I say again: Huh!

If I decide to be the best romantic partner I’ve ever had, is that hilarious or creepy?

One thing’s for sure. I won’t have to work very hard to be the best romantic partner I’ve ever had!

Wait, I already am the best romantic partner I ever had, I just took some time off. And now I miss me.

Our daily crime: Let’s go romance ourselves!

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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