Tag Archives: Christmas

Essential Things

It’s the season of Christmas music. Like it or hate it, it seems to be inescapable just now. I’ve never understood why “My Favorite Things” is a Christmas song, but it always seems to be in the holiday music lineup, so the lyrics have been winding their way through my thoughts.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

One of the things I love about life is how multilayered it is, and how, paradoxically, the activities that demand most of our time and energy are not necessarily the things that truly nourish us and make our lives worth living. We can look around us and identify a few of our favorite things on the surface of our lives. Several layers underneath the surface, however, is a different list, a list of what we’re rooted in. The loss of surface things is painful. The loss of what we’re rooted in is terminal.

I’ve come to appreciate the complex layers in life gradually. For a long time I was only aware of my shallow roots, and they were in other people. My possessions, my place and the people around me provided me with a sense of identity and I didn’t see myself as separate from them.

In fact, I didn’t see myself at all.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens certainly enrich my life, but I’m not rooted in them. I don’t draw joy, passion, hope and my desire to engage with life from them.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

So, I’ve been asking myself for the last few days, what are my roots growing in? What lies in the layers beneath my favorite things and my stories, beliefs and identity? What makes life possible and beautiful?

The resulting list, not of favorite things but of essential things, seems very odd to me. It’s so odd and unexpected, in fact, that I’m wildly curious about how other people would answer these questions. Am I the only odd one, or does everyone have a strange little inventory of necessities in their deepest layers of experience? I was also surprised at how hard it was to excavate so deeply, far below my desire for seductive surface things I can buy. Making a wish list is easy. Making an external inventory of the stuff in our lives is also not difficult, though it may take some time. Descending deeply within ourselves, past our relationship to others, past our identity and past the things that fire or flood can take from us to scratch and sniff and burrow among our own roots, tasting the soil and filling ourselves with our own scent, is a journey through the dark without guide or companion into our own soul.

Photo by Riccardo Pelati on Unsplash

In that deep, internal place from which I draw faith, peace and love reside a memory and a dream. The memory is of a crippled orange cat who taught me everything I know about unconditional love, survival, surrender, courage and the gift of life. The dream is of my mother, young and carefree, leaping and running joyfully down a grassy hill under a blue sky toward a group of waiting horses, dogs and cats.

My roots must mingle with the roots of other lives, especially the patient trees, and always they reach for water in all its forms, as necessary to me as breathing.

Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

I cannot imagine living without stories. My childhood was spent in secret gardens, Oz, Narnia and on the river with Mole, Rat and ridiculous Mr. Toad. The greatest loss of things I can imagine is the loss of my library, but the influence and inspiration of all the stories I’ve read, told, written and even forgotten have shaped me in countless ways that can never be lost. I am never tired of watching, listening to and reading about the stories around me, mine, yours and theirs.

Stories are only one aspect of creativity, and creativity is perhaps the strongest support upon which my life rests. The power to make something out of nothing, the power to interpret a piece of life with music, words, dance, fiber, paint or any other material or medium, seems to me the most sacred power there is. The compulsion to make, not for money or fame, but as a love letter to life, animates and inspires me. The work of creativity is the greatest spiritual treasure we can give ourselves, one another and the world.

A dream that all will be well. A memory of a great love. Trees and water, stories and the joy of creation. These are the essential things without which I would not be. A strange assortment that doubtless makes a strangely shaped  soul, but I don’t mind. I know who I am, and I know what I need.

My daily crime.

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

The Complexity of Simple

It’s the first week of the new year, and many of us are pausing to look back over our shoulders at where we’ve been the last twelve months and then turning to survey the path before us, at least as much of the path as we can see. The internet is awash with lists of how to make New Year resolutions as well as lists of why we shouldn’t make New Year resolutions. Advertising for buying our way to a new persona is frenzied.

As usual, I’m out of step. I’ve read a couple of great pieces this week, one about the limits of willpower and a list of 13 things to give up for success. I’ve read and re-read them, thought about them, and discussed the first article extensively with my partner. Normally when material like this catches my interest it develops into a blog, but this week nothing is happening.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

All I can think about is simplicity.

Lists are great. I used to be a champion list maker. They guided my whole life during a lot of complicated years.

Now? Not so much.

I have really simplified.

But the thing about simplifying is how complicated it is.

For example, more than a year ago I stopped shaving. But that’s not where it started. It started with me deciding I was no longer going to please people. But that’s not exactly where it started, either. Part of it started when I decided to allow myself to be everything I am and nothing I’m not.

If I hadn’t given up on pleasing others and limiting myself, I never would have stopped shaving. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so. Interrupting this lifelong habit never made it onto a list, though it would have been easy to cross off. One decision and it was over.

Making a list of behaviors to discard is wildly misleading, because it doesn’t address what underlies our inappropriate and ineffective behaviors, and that’s where all the ongoing and time-consuming work is.

Pleasing others and making myself small are two lifelong, deeply entrenched habits, and I work every day to make different choices. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect. (Another deeply entrenched habit–perfectionism!) Any distress or inattention results in automatic reversion to my old habits. I don’t expect to ever be able to cross ‘stop pleasing others’ and ‘stop making yourself small’ off a list.

On the other hand, working to change and challenge these two big things allows a whole cascade of smaller habits to loosen and fall away, the kinds of habits that are reasonable to put in a list. Pleasing others and making myself small create an immensely complicated set of actions.

Anyway, one day it occurred to me to ask myself why I shaved.

Answer: Because everyone does. It’s a social rule that women shave their body hair. Hairy legs are unattractive.

The everything-I-am and nothing-I’m-not me: Oh, yeah?

The not-pleasing-other-people me: I don’t think hairy legs are unattractive. All my lovers have had hairy legs. I didn’t mind. In fact, I like body hair. It adds texture and sensation, especially in erogenous zones. I refuse to accept that male hairy legs and armpits are acceptable and female hairy legs and armpits are ugly. That’s ridiculous.

So I stopped shaving.

Ahhh! Simplicity.

No more razors or shaving cream to buy and throw away. No more rashes, nicks or razor burn. Less hot water, less time in the shower. Bonus: In wringing humidity and hot weather, the hair on my legs and under my arms helps me cool more effectively. Another bonus: No more microcuts in my armpits. I worry less about health concerns regarding deodorant. A third bonus: Hairs provide sensory information. If a tick is crawling on me, it stirs the hairs on my body and alerts me to its presence.

I still wear shorts and skirts. I swim every week. My partner appears to be able to deal with a woman in a natural woman’s body without fainting with horror. In fact, I don’t think he even really noticed.

Shaving is just one of many examples of things that can be crossed off lists, but before we can get to those, we have to deal with the big stuff, and that’s hard, ongoing work. The big stuff drives the little stuff. Want to get more exercise? Work on keeping your word to yourself. Want to lose weight? Excavate your relationship with food and redefine it (which means change your life and purge your kitchen).

Simplicity is frequently the end result of complex effort.

On the other hand, some of us have a genius for making simple steps unbelievably complex.

Take exercise, for example. Do you want to exercise more? Really? Then set down the device you’re reading this on, put on clothes appropriate for whatever is outside and (here’s the hard part) walk. You don’t need a dog, a buddy, your mate, special clothes, neon shoes, a Fitbit, a step counter, a timer, a gym membership or a piece of expensive equipment. You don’t need earbuds or entertainment.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Just. Walk.

Now you’re getting exercise. Do it every day and you’re getting more exercise.

It’s simple. Nike got it right. Just do it.

If it feels more complex than this, it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s some belief or pattern (often deeply buried and unconscious) that’s sabotaging our efforts. And that’s complex!

It’s been very cold here in Maine, as it has in many other parts of the nation. We had a heavy snow on Christmas Day. After my daily stint of three or four hours of writing, I wanted a walk, so I layered up and went out into the storm.

Unbroken fresh snow underfoot. One set of tire tracks going up the hill. The chill kiss of wet flakes against the little bit of exposed skin on my face. Wind, and the sound of the trees groaning and creaking and the snow hitting my hood. The sound of my own breath, which condensed on the scarf wrapped around my face so that it crusted with ice. My steady footsteps squeaking up the hill. Everything grey and white and shadow.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Christmas Day, and nothing but swirling snow and breathing, walking, the warmth and vitality of my own life. So simple. So peaceful. So starkly beautiful, and nothing to do but inhabit my body and the day.

In these days, fully in the grasp of winter, life is reduced to the wood stove, hot meals, my daily exercise and my writing practice. At 4:30 p.m. it’s dark. Storm and gale, wind chill and subzero temperatures limit our ability to drive. We delve into our piles of books. The cat snuggles with us on the couch. If the power goes out, we light candles and I’m not displeased. At night, the house pops and cracks, groaning in the cold and the wind. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my feet up and a blanket around my shoulders, I doze off as I’m reading The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. This kind of extreme cold is very simplifying. Eat. Stay warm.

Simplifying my life has made me happier, healthier and more productive. It’s also been frustrating, slow, unpredictable, unexpected, terrifying and painful. It has not looked like an orderly list on a fresh sheet of paper written with my favorite pen. It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn’t it? Lose weight. Check. Get more exercise. Check. Spend more time with family and friends. Check. Get more sleep. Check.

Those are all worthy goals, and perfectly attainable, but not by writing a list or making New Year resolutions. Changing behavior is a great deal more complicated than that, and creating a life of simplicity is an enormous undertaking.

Boy, is it worth it, though!

Happy New Year to each of you.

Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash

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

Winter Solstice 2016

It’s taken me a long time to come in peace to Winter Solstice.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Just a week or two ago, I wrote my mother that I’ve always felt desolate during the Christmas season, but I didn’t know why. I couldn’t say what would make it perfect. Somehow, in nearly fifty Christmases in my memory, I’ve never gotten it right. In the last years, without children or significant other, I’ve always chosen to work and just pretend it wasn’t happening.

This year, quite unexpectedly, is different.

Human beings are strange creatures. We create a winter celebration around the sun’s rhythm. We do fire rituals and tell stories during the shortest day of the year in order to woo the sun back for the next cycle of life and growth.

Then we superimpose a religious festival on top of that old pagan celebration and talk about miracles, new life, humble beginnings, peace, joy, faith, hope and all the rest.

Then we agree that the season is really about commercial opportunity. We develop traditions and expectations involving food, drink, parties, decorations, lights and presents. We emphasize giving to others out of our own resources, whether it be money, time or kindness, but we don’t talk about whether we have any resources to give out of.

Then we build it up big with music, movies, stories, a guaranteed ‘vacation’ and a fat man in a red suit, and we throw all these elements together while we drown in advertising that informs us what we must have, what we want and what we must buy to prove our love for others.

We mix this all up with broken and dysfunctional families, loss, poverty, depression, addiction, mental illness, homelessness, hatred, bigotry, late nights, obesity, isolation, obligation, duty, over scheduling, exhaustion, health problems, insomnia, guilt, shame, debt and (in some places) winter weather, smile at strangers and say, “Merry Christmas!” Or, if we want to be politically correct, “Happy Holidays!”

Ho ho ho!

Yikes!

Once again this week, my daily crime is my truth. There’s nothing I need from Christmas. For years, I’ve been focused on being alone because I failed in my marriage, financial limitations (another kind of failure), having adult children who are living their own lives (because I taught them to!), and my social limitations, which include being uncomfortable with crowds, noise, stimulation and drinking.

This year, I’m laughing at myself. This year, I realize it’s not that Christmas doesn’t want me. It’s that I don’t want it!

Winter Solstice, however, is a different story. Winter Solstice is today. I’m sitting in a small two room second floor space at the top of a steep, uneven staircase in our one hundred-plus-year-old farmhouse. The sun is coming through a pattern of frost on the window behind me and shining on my hands as I type. A crystal hanging in the window throws glinting rainbows over the walls and sloping ceiling. A clock ticks at the head of the stairs. Now and then I hear my partner putting wood in the wood stove, directly below me. These rooms are unheated, but the brick chimney rises up through them and radiates heat all winter. I’ve a garland of twined artificial ivy, red berries and gold fringe, made years ago, hanging from a shelf. I have an old candle lantern somebody gave me with a gold pillar candle in it and another garland of red glass beads and ivy wrapped around it. There’s a simple string of red lights in the other room, where my work station is, and when the early dark comes I plug it in.

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Outside the windows, one looking north and one looking south, are trees; the smooth snow-covered slope down to the pond, punctuated by stalks of last year’s cattails; the two-lane road, covered in a thick layer of ice, salt and sand; and the driveway, covered in a thick layer of ice, wood stove ash and cat litter for traction. Crows enliven the trees around us; the ravens grace the air outside my windows, coming to check for victims of our mouse traps, which my partner throws out on the slope for them; and jays call harshly, forcing the smaller birds away from the bird feeders by the driveway.

This week we’ve had snow, and then on top of the snow we had freezing rain and subzero temperatures. I had to run to the post office to mail a package to my mother for Christmas, and I floated gingerly over the icy road, feeling the tires slip. The patient sleeping trees were backlit by the low sun and every twig, every pine needle, every single stem and blade was coated in sparkling ice, preserved by the polar air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so beautiful, and I’ve carried the picture in my mind ever since.

It’s Winter Solstice in central Maine. No tree, no stockings, no pile of presents, no special food or drink. It’s Winter Solstice, and I’m alive. The trees are skimmed with diamonds, the low sun is shining, I’m writing and my hands are comforted by my mug of tea. A lifetime of favorite Christmas music plays from an iTunes playlist I created. I’m quiet. I’m at peace. I’m with two people I love—myself and my partner. I know joy. Later, when I go swimming, the sun will shine in the poolside windows and I’ll swim through sunlit rippled water as I do laps. If the pipes freeze in the kitchen sink again, we can do dishes in the bathtub. If the power goes out I can read by the light of my gold candle.

Tonight, on the longest night, I’ll lie snug in bed in our unheated room. We’ll read for a bit, our hands getting colder and colder as we hold our books in the frigid atmosphere, and then we’ll turn out the light and go to sleep while the house pops and cracks around us in the cold and whoever is moving around in the roof (Squirrel? Chipmunk? Mice? Wood rat?) scratches and scrabbles over our heads.

It’s Winter Solstice, and I wish you peace, and joy, and a still pause in which to be.

The light returns.

Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted