Tag Archives: community

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.

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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

Emotional Labor

A couple of years ago my adult son and I had a heated exchange during which I asked him exactly what he wanted from me. It was a useful question. For a moment we stopped being adversaries while he thought about it. “Umm, I don’t know. What I’ve always had, unconditional love, I guess.”

That moment has stayed with me, because as I asked the question I realized I really didn’t know, and I was both curious and interested. What does a fully emancipated twenty-something-year-old man honestly want from his mother? It was the first time it ever occurred to me to ask either of my sons what they wanted from me at any age or stage.

I never thought of anything except what I wanted to give them.

I’ve been reading about emotional labor recently, which leads me irresistibly to the concept of benign neglect.

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Emotional labor is the often invisible process of managing feelings and their expressions as part of a job or relationship. The idea often comes up as part of the ongoing discussion about gender roles and equality, but I’m thinking about it in a slightly different context.

Benign neglect is a term that originated out of city planning politics and now also describes an attitude of inaction regarding an unproductive situation one is commonly held to be responsible for.

I’ve written before about pleasing people, boundaries and reciprocity. Emotional labor is embedded in all of these, and it’s been a primary dysfunction in my relationships over the years, though I haven’t had any language or distinction about my experience of it until recently.

If you Google emotional labor you find definitions, descriptions, assertions about the disproportionate burden of emotional labor on women, and the powerful but invisible expectations regarding who is responsible for emotional labor in any given situation. What you don’t find is discussion about how to make visible and support the vital aspect of emotional labor in community, jobs and families. The discussion stops at equal rights.

Equal rights is an important discussion to have, but in the meantime we’re dealing with families, friends and jobs today and emotional labor is an inescapable need right now.

I think of emotional labor as glue. You don’t see it, but if it’s missing everything falls apart. If it’s applied carefully it holds things together. If we don’t keep a calendar and glance at a clock now and then, we can’t manage our lives. Either we learn to cope with appointments, deadlines, commitments, grocery lists and feelings ourselves or we rely on someone else to do it for us. Part of adulting is learning emotional labor.

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I’m a button sorter by nature, and I take a lot of pleasure in being organized. My life works better when I take the trouble to be effective and efficient, and it gives me pleasure to share with my loved ones the benefits of thinking and planning ahead and taking care of business. Remembering special dates, buying tickets, planning for bake sales and decorating for the holidays have all been offerings symbolizing my love and willingness to provide support to my family, along with the daily activity of simply showing up in my relationships.

I said that recently to my partner — “this is me showing up in the relationship.” He had no idea what I meant.

I was staggered. What do you mean, what do I mean? You know, asking if you slept well because you didn’t the night before. Or inquiring about the status of that headache you complained about yesterday. Or asking you what’s in your attention and what you’d like to do today. Listening. Sharing. Showing concern. Demonstrating that I appreciate you enough to be present. Reminding you that we’re almost out of cat litter. Thanking you for patching the mousehole in the cupboard. Showing up in the relationship!

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Yeah. Aka emotional labor.

He listened and shrugged. I didn’t describe anything he could relate to. He lives his life with me without showing up or not showing up. He just does what he does, says what he says, is interested in what he’s interested in. He doesn’t check in with himself every day to be sure he “showed up” in a way that reassures me of his ongoing affection and caring.

I do.

I’ve thought a lot about this since that conversation. I’ve been conscious of a huge annoyance and, underneath that, amusement.

All my emotional labor is completely unneeded. He never asked me to do it. It’s not useful. It’s invisible to him.

This made me wonder if that’s been true in all my other relationships as well, including with my kids, historically and presently.

That’s not right, though, because I’ve been with some real man-babies. My husband once called me at work because the baby had a soiled diaper. (Okay, it was a real blow-out, but still!) Then there was the guy who wanted a dog to fish with, but didn’t want to walk it, poop scoop after it or stay up all night on July Fourth holding its paw because it was terrified of firecrackers and invariably went into seizures (it had epilepsy).

And then there were the kids. There’s no question at all that raising kids takes a lot of emotional labor. It’s both needed and required.

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I guess I just got into the habit. Emotional labor has been my offering, my contribution, in every relationship. I’m good at it. Until very lately, I never considered reciprocity and I had no definition for emotional labor. I just thought of it as being a good woman.

When my son said he wanted what I’d always given, unconditional love, I had a moment of real satisfaction. I made so many mistakes, but at least I did that right. On the other hand, can those two simple words ever encompass the totality of heart, pain, frustration, energy, loyalty and years they represent? Unconditional love. That’s all.

Right.

I was with a man for a long time who had no interest in emotional labor. Once he had me hooked, he was never decisive, confident or clear again. He initiated no physical contact. He resisted making any plans. He made no effort to develop rituals, routines or regular check-ins. His job was stressful, he had some sleep and health issues, and his favorite excuse was “I forgot.” I gave and he withheld.

Eight years later (slow learner) burned-out, anguished and desperate, it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if I. Just. Stopped.

So I did. I stopped e-mailing. I stopped calling. I made plans without him. I let go of all my expectations and started trying to glue myself back together. I worked, took care of my own responsibilities, enjoyed time with friends and family and went on with my life. I set down all that emotional labor and walked away from it.

Guess what happened?

He floated away.

I’d essentially had an eight-year relationship with myself.

He did eventually (weeks) notice I wasn’t around any more and got in touch, mildly puzzled and reproachful. I was casual and said I’d been busy.

He told me he didn’t feel like he was getting the attention he needed from me. We were sitting in his car at the time. I’ll never forget it.

Until now, I’ve never put that experience in context with all my other relationships. After my recent conversation with my partner about showing up in the relationship, I changed my behavior. I stopped worrying about “showing up” every day. I’ve engaged with my own needs, daily tasks and schedule. I enjoy our time together, but I’ve stopped trying to make it happen. I switched my focus to making sure I show up for myself every day.

What I’ve learned from all this is that emotional labor is real and largely unconscious. Many of us give our lives to it. I’ve also learned it’s a choice. When it remains invisible and undefined and we’re operating out of unspoken cultural expectations, we become unconscious of much of our decision-making and motivation. Our desire to be a “good” wife, mother, daughter, lover, sister, whatever, becomes all-powerful and we throw ourselves into it without ever thinking about whether that’s what others want and/or need from us. We don’t consider asking for help or professional support if we’re caretakers. In fact, we feel hurt when our emotional labor of worrying, for example, is not received with gratitude and appreciation! If whoever we’re connected with does want our emotional labor and provides none themselves, we don’t notice. We just work harder.

This is where benign neglect comes in. Benign neglect is an attitude of inaction regarding an unproductive situation one is commonly held to be responsible for, remember? The culture may hold us to be responsible for a lot of things, but that doesn’t make it true.

What if we challenged the “commonly held” belief that all emotional labor is our job in any given relationship? What if we decided it’s not our responsibility, in addition to not being useful, to worry, fuss, organize or manage the feelings of the people around us? What if we took back our power to choose?

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If I had stopped worrying about doing laundry for my teenagers, or insisting on family mealtimes, or keeping track of their schedules, what then? The sad truth is I was afraid people would think I was a bad mother. I knew I would think I was a bad mother. The kids didn’t do those things for themselves, so I had to do it in order to demonstrate my love, commitment and competence. What kind of a mother lets her kids wear dirty socks?

I didn’t consider the difference between organizing schedules for toddlers and organizing two big, smart, capable boys who saw no reason to bother themselves with boring things like schedules, grocery lists and clean socks. I was so busy demonstrating my feelings, especially my love for them, I never stopped to wonder if they were learning to express their feelings. I didn’t ask.

It annoys me that only now am I seeing ways in which I could have been a much more effective parent, partner, daughter and sister.

At bottom, I don’t think emotional labor is about equal gender rights at all. I think it’s about choice, and choice is about power. We can’t choose if we don’t recognize there is a choice, we can only stumble forward blindly, doing our best with what we think the rules and expectations are, external and internal, until, overburdened, overwhelmed and exhausted, we fall down and don’t get up again. Meanwhile, the people we love, the ones we’re doing all this labor for, are not saved by our labor. Kids grow up, have car accidents and bad relationships, choose crappy diets, fall into addiction, catch an STD. Parents grow old, have health problems, and become dependent. Siblings, friends, lovers and mates are not assisted by our worry, our ability to manage their feelings or our “showing up” in the relationship. All our loved ones might be a great deal better off if we hadn’t taken on all the emotional labor ourselves, because when life happens, as it inevitably does, they lack the skills we never let them learn because we were so busy being good women.

Also, when was the last time you were thanked for all your emotional labor? (What do you mean, “showing up” in the relationship?)

You gotta love the irony of the whole thing.

What would my relationships look like if I kept my emotional labor in balance with the labor of those I’m connected to? What if I could be more like my partner and trust that my affection and love for him (and others) are communicated and understood without such deliberate emotional labor? He just naturally demonstrates his feelings for me in our day-to-day life without all this effort and trying.  What if I relaxed and redefined what being a “good woman” means?

I’m going to find out.

My daily crime.

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

Making An Offering

The seed for this post was a podcast by Pat McCabe, also known as Woman Stands Shining, who is a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. In the podcast, she speaks about the idea of making an offering as part of our spiritual work.

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That idea started me thinking about offerings, what it means to make one, to whom we make them, and why. Spiritual and sacred practices are a strong theme in the trilogy I’m writing, starting with The Hanged Man. Mother’s Day has come and gone and Father’s Day is ahead. Many of us mark these days with offerings of some kind. For Earth Day, I joined a small neighborhood group and picked up trash, and I framed that activity as an offering. Yesterday I cleaned up my summer-only dance space and danced there for the first time this season. As so often happens, during that hour of dance this week’s blog crystallized.

An offering is “a thing offered as a gift or a contribution” according to a quick Internet search. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.”

The act of making an offering is ancient, a practice we began long before we could go out and buy a gift. Various cultures have historically engaged in ritual sacrifice (an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure), an altogether different degree of gift from a cute coffee mug.

I’ve long struggled personally with gift giving. There’s something in me that resents and resists the cultural mandates we’ve created to give gifts of a particular kind on certain occasions or days of the year. It seems to me modern-day gift giving has moved away from making an offering and into a demonstration of possessing money and spending it on some new piece of something, just for the look of the thing. We may feel real love, or gratitude, or whatever, but the only way we know how to express it is by buying a card (never mind the trees) and some kind of a gift.

I know that’s how we do things, but what does it accomplish, aside from contributing to our capitalist economy? Is that what we most want from the people in our lives — more stuff — or is that what we take because we can’t get what we really want? Is a coffee mug all we think we have to offer? Is a coffee mug all we think the other will accept? Are we unable to recognize and cherish an offering unless it comes gift-wrapped?

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I’m thinking a lot about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, because I’m writing about her in my second book. (This began before the recent trouble in Hawaii.) Traditional offerings to Pele involved tobacco, brandy, silk, crystals, tropical flowers and food. Offerings to Pele and other divine figures around the world involved ritual, prayer, music, song, dance and sometimes a sacrifice. Things, yes, although many were objects from the natural world, but also time. Presence. Creative, sensual and/or erotic expression. Community celebration, guided by spiritual leaders. Reverence. Appreciation. Gratitude. Acknowledgement of the Divine’s connection to the people and the natural world they inhabited.

Making an offering on this level is a demonstration of commitment and willingness to participate in the complex web of connection between people and nature. It’s a practice, not a one-time event. It’s flexible and not limited to the calendar or the clock. If there’s a community or individual need to speak to the Divine, time is set aside to do so. No money or commerce need be involved, because the offering is of self.

The offering of self, however, is often invisible, especially to our nearest and dearest. It’s so fatally easy to take one another for granted. The very act of feeding those we love is an offering we’ve been making and accepting since humans began. The acts of growing, harvesting, gathering, hunting, sharing and preparing food, absolutely necessary for survival, are almost obscured now by money and time constraints, ecological concerns, health issues, ideology and who does the dishes. Whether we recognize it or not, feeding another person is an offering of life. Parents know that making that single offering to just one child, let alone other family members, is a colossal, exhausting, unending task. Yet it’s so often completely invisible, and who has time to enjoy the act of offering food to another (or ourselves, for that matter), or incorporate ritual, play or creativity into our eating? It’s just another chore in our busy days.

So, if our offering is invisible, unrecognized, unappreciated or even rejected in favor of something like a coffee mug, does it mean we’re worth nothing, we are nothing?

Of course not, but it feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?

Making an offering means letting it go into the world and having faith in its worth. An offering is a gift, and a gift is a thing given willingly, without payment, remember? There isn’t a scorecard. It’s the practice of offering that enriches our spirit, not the outcome. Unfortunately, everything about our modern culture trains us to depend on immediate reinforcement. We’re hooked on likes, claps and our stats. We gloat over the number of our friends, subscribers, comments and shares. Deadliest of all, we compare our popularity and performance with the popularity and performance of others.

What others think about us and how the world perceives us is becoming more important than our own integrity and the authenticity and quality of our offerings. We’re forgetting how to trust and have faith in silence, in invisibility and in not knowing. We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

What about the offerings we make to ourselves? What about our ability to meet our own needs,  spiritual, physical, creative and emotional? Do we have any self to give ourselves? Do we tell ourselves there’s no time, no money and no point? Do we tell ourselves that whatever our self-expression is, it’s not worth anything, meaning we can’t sell it to someone or no one will approve of it?

Woodshed

I danced yesterday in an old woodshed that was attached to a local one-room schoolhouse more than 100 years ago. It leans and tilts. The roof leaks. The windows and doors aren’t square and the wind blows through gaps. I swept out the winter’s accumulation of mouse and bat droppings, leaves and dirt. It was a warm, sunny day and as I danced I gradually peeled off my clothes until I was naked. The sun came in the west window and made a square on the floor.

I thought of trees and stones offering their bodies to moss and lichen, the earth offering itself to plants, and blossoms offering themselves to sunlight and insects.

I thought of smiling into a stranger’s eyes and complimenting a cashier on the color of her blouse.

I thought of the creators of the music I was dancing to making an offering of their talent, enabling me to offer my dance.

I thought of homes, rooms and gardens I’ve created that are long erased. I thought of people I’ve loved with my whole heart and volunteer work I’ve done. I thought of my partner, who was running an errand in town so I could eat bacon the next morning. I thought of picking up trash on Earth Day and the new trash that’s been thrown out car windows since then, and how futile that makes me feel.

I thought about words, all these words, all these stories and ideas and thoughts in my head that are here, and on Medium, and in my books. I thought about all the words written by others that I read each day and appreciate, share, clap for or comment on.

I thought about procreation, the red tide and the milky seed our bodies offer to life, to hope, to continuance. I thought about offerings of tears, of blood, of pain, of rage and of surrender.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Offering is a circle. Life offers itself to us, and we can choose to offer ourselves to Life. What better offering can we make than our fully engaged participation and presence with ourselves, our experience and others? Such a gift can’t be bought or sold. It might not feed our fame, popularity or bank account. We probably won’t get validated by statistics or Twitter. Some people may never recognize or value it.

But our self-esteem will bloom. Our joy will increase. Our words and choices will add to the positive energy in the world. We will become self-empowered and spiritually strong and resilient.

I smiled and laughed and shouted as I danced, whirled and stamped and clapped. I offered up my white, winter-tender skin to the sun and air. A mosquito bit me on a knee; a blood offering. No one saw me, except maybe an astonished spider or two. No one cared. It was an offering of self to self, a private thing. It gave me joy. It gave my body a chance to move and be grateful. It fed my creative well.

It was nothing.

It was everything.

It was my offering.

Thank you for reading.

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