Tag Archives: connection

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

Making a List, Checking it Twice

It occurred to me this morning that, in general, I’m still confused about what I want.

I’ve had a tumultuous history with my own wants. At some point, very early, as I was learning to be a people pleaser, I gave up wanting anything because I thought it was bad. What I understood was that everyone else’s wants were far more important, and it was my more-than-full-time job to provide those wants rather than selfishly have my own. With rare exceptions, that’s been my modus operandi my whole life.

When I went through a life coaching and emotional intelligence program, my coach suggested that I had a perfect right to get my needs met, and he defined some of my “wants” as needs, for example my longing for community and connection. I was enraged. Nobody had ever before made such an outrageous proposal. He clearly didn’t understand the terrible vulnerability of needing or wanting anything from anyone. Having the right to get needs and wants met was the most ludicrous, dangerous piece of heresy I’d ever heard.

That was four years ago, and I’m as angry about it now as I was the first time I heard it.

I also can’t leave the idea alone. I think about it all the time.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I picture my needs and wants as a snarling chained wolf with blazing eyes, nothing but matted grey hair over bones, backed into a tight corner, determined to go down fighting.

I grieve, literally, to admit that I chained it there myself. I chained it, without food, water or shelter, and walked away–for decades. During those years of neglect, it starved and thirsted. It suffered alone with no help, no hope, a solitary prisoner.

I’ve done a lot of animal rescue work in my time, and I know that sometimes an animal is just too far gone to rehabilitate. Sometimes you can save their bodies, but the abuse and neglect they’ve suffered has damaged their will to live and their ability to trust and connect, and rescue comes too late. Sometimes, against all odds, some strength of heart or spirit survives and an animal accepts affection and care, but its body is too starved or broken to heal.

Part of what I’ve been doing since I’ve come to Maine is to try to rescue my chained wolf, this piece of self that I rejected, denied and tried to destroy.

It’s a long process, filled with grief, shame and anger. It takes determination, patience, and the willingness to own my history, my pain and my choices, as well as consenting to my responsibility for my own self-healing. Overcoming internal taboos is desperately hard work, and Wanting is one of my oldest taboos.

Sometime last year I wrote a list titled “Things to Want.” It was short and consisted of necessities, mostly. After a lot of hesitation, I added two things that were not necessary but I just … wanted. It felt wrong. It felt shameful. I left the list on my desk and over the following days and weeks I looked at it as I went about my life. About eight months later I bought one of the unnecessary things, a perfumed body oil that I love. It cost about $25.

It was like offering a little bit of bland food to my starving wolf, pushing it near with a stick so as to avoid getting mauled. Not so much food as to make it sick, but a place to start.

Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash

This morning, in the pause of winter and our first big snowstorm, my partner and I talked about our plans, our dreams, and our progress. Later, I went out to walk in the snow and I suddenly saw another layer to wanting, another step closer to making amends to my chained wolf.

Wanting is just the beginning. Making a Christmas list is only the top step. What’s the list under the Christmas list, and the list under that? What is it that I really want, independent of anyone else? What about the dreams I hold in common with no one, that are just about and for me? If I was free–If my wolf could bound through the snowy landscape and disappear into the Yule forest–what would I want? If we could escape judgement, our own and others’; escape for a moment our stories and labels and self-definitions; escape family, social and tribal expectations; escape our ideology (most imprisoning of all) and want, honestly, nakedly, with all our hearts, what would that Christmas list look like?

In other words, it’s not about the perfumed body oil (Aphrodisian Fire, by the way, from Kate’s Magik). It’s about touch, scent and caring for my thinning skin. It’s about deliberately honoring my own feminine sensuality.

I don’t need any particular product, cosmetic, clothing, gizmo or piece of technology in order to honor my own feminine sensuality, although there are plenty of things to buy that might support that want, including Aphrodisian Fire, but I see now those are really just symbols. I have the power to honor my sensuality in the way I live–in the choices I make about who I connect with and how, and how I treat myself.

Photo by Caley Dimmock on Unsplash

Santa hasn’t got my choices in his sleigh.

I’m very attached to the dreams my partner and I hold in common. I love our vision, and I’m invested in it. It’s going to take a lot of money, and we don’t have that right now.

Maybe we won’t ever have it.

Maybe I was a damn fool (again) and I should never, never, have listened to someone who says it’s okay to have needs and want them met. Maybe I should walk away from my wolf again, and this time never come back. Let it starve to death.

But maybe our grand vision and plans are only the top layers of what I really want. Maybe the plan is the wrapping paper around the real treasures of self-reliance; living as part of a complex, self-sustaining system; building independence from the energy grid and a culture I largely can’t support; fostering community and trusting in my greatest joy … writing.

I don’t have to wait for the plan to happen to have those things. I don’t need money. I don’t need to wait for someone else. I don’t need to brutally imprison or eliminate my wants and needs. I can be learning, building and transforming my life right now, today, from the inside out. I can, day by day, draw a step closer to my wolf with food, with water, with a gentle hand and with compassion, and maybe, one day, come close enough to remove the chain and let the poor creature go free and wild into the world, wanting and needing as it will.

So, I’m making a list and checking it twice. Or three times. I’m peering underneath the items, things, objects, stuff on that list. What is it I really want? What am I really longing for? And if I look under that, what do I find? What are the deepest wants and needs?

Wanting. My daily crime. Just in time for Christmas.

Photo by Galina N on Unsplash

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

Being Good

Relationship is the finest crucible I know for personal growth and transformation. Unfortunately, it’s also the best crucible for abuse and destruction, but I no longer focus on that aspect of connection with others. My relationships now are based on growth, not destruction. I have promised myself this.

As my partner and I slowly move toward shaping a life of self-sufficiency and holistic collaboration with our land and community, we are experiencing (naturally) many unwelcome pauses and fallow periods as we wait on favorable weather, the scheduling needs of others or the availability of funds.

I’ve noticed that during these frustrating pauses my partner serenely deals with the work of the day and then is perfectly happy to sit on our sagging couch, a book in one hand, the TV remote in the other and the cat velcroed to him, occasionally getting up to feed the wood stove.

Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

It drives me nuts. How does he do that?

We had a conversation about it over breakfast recently.

He’s hanging out and waiting for the stars to align so we can begin to move forward again. That might come in the form of some income, a phone call, a stretch of really warm days, or who knows what other miracles. He figures it will all work out, one way or another, in time, and meanwhile he might as well relax and enjoy life.

I, on the other hand, from my earliest memory, make Deals with the Universe. My Deal is that I’ll Be Good in order to get what I need to survive. Being Good is specifically defined.

  • I will not complain, whine, want or need anything I don’t have.
  • I will hoard what I do have and be grateful, because I have so much more than many others.
  • I will work as hard as I can at all the tasks that can be done right here, right now, even if it’s only scrubbing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees or cleaning out closets.
  • I will not wait, hope, dream. I will act. Now!
  • I will not make excuses, procrastinate or (God help us) relax.
  • I will never admit to feeling afraid or anxious or impoverished in any way. Being truthful about our experience is “airing dirty laundry,” which is shameful and vulgar.

Somewhere inside me is a hysteric who knows my partner is wrong. Sitting on the couch means he’ll never see his dreams come true. He won’t deserve to see dreams come true, because he’s not doing anything to help himself, to prove himself worthy of good things. He’s not hoarding what we have. He’s got a light on for reading and the TV on and he’s putting wood in the stove as though those six cords out in the barn will last all winter! (They will.) He’s not doing all the tasks that could be done. He’s failing the test, failing his side of the deal, and we are screwed.

All this panic and fear impel me to work harder and harder at everything. At anything. I must demonstrate to the Universe that I’m not a slacker, a sponge, an ingrate. I must also make up for his blasphemy of sitting on the couch, because we hold dreams in common, and we can’t manifest the lives we want without each other. Clearly, I must Be Good for both of us.

The infuriating but inescapable truth is that I can’t honestly say my Deals with the Universe work better than my partner’s approach. I’ve always had what I’ve needed to survive, but so has he!

It’s not fair.

Then, this last week I read the best essay I’ve come across on rape culture and its effect on women. The writer perfectly expresses much of my longing and the difficulty of allowing oneself to be fully and powerfully female. I feel more and more tension around this in our climate of hysterical political correctness, labeling, jargon and sloppy thinking. The increasing visibility of symptoms of rape culture give me hope that in some quarters there is a will to change, but will it be enough? Will we ever really see an equal playing ground for all people? Not necessarily the same playing ground, but equal in contribution and value, equal in respect, resource and power?

I don’t know.

Anyway, I went for my morning walk with the essay and my Being Good rules rattling around in my head. There were snowflakes in the air under a mostly cloudy cold sky with occasional gleams of sun. The river flowed quietly along and I sat for a while under the trees to watch the snow fall in the water.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

What if, I wondered, instead of my exhausting and not-notably-effective list of what Being Good entails, I changed my Being Good Deal with the Universe to living the truest and fullest expression of myself possible? What if that included the entirety of my wants, needs, feelings, thoughts, creativity, passion, power and sexuality? What if that included all the great and small activities and experiences that give me pleasure? What if I gave my obnoxious, persistent and compulsive judgement a sabbatical, with an option for permanent retirement?

I was so intrigued by this that I’ve been playing with it for the last few days. In that time my laptop developed technical problems and is in the shop, so I’ve been without my usual habits, tools and routines. This blog was not published first thing Thursday morning. I notice that life manages to continue in spite of it. I’ve read, walked, laid on my back on the ground in the sun, meditated, gone swimming and luxuriated in a hot therapy pool, done Tai Chi and ordered my favorite body oil. I’ve listened to Christmas music. I’ve eaten a bowl of ice cream. I’ve had an honest conversation with two women I like and admire. I’ve taken walks with my partner. This looks much like my usual life, it’s just that currently I’m allowing myself to enjoy my experience without shame, expectation or judgement.

Life is a lot easier and much more fun under my new (and simplified) Be Good Deal with the Universe. Will the Universe frown or smile upon this new Deal?

Who knows? Maybe it’s none of my business. Maybe the Universe isn’t looking over my shoulder, recording every action and thought, maintaining a cosmic scorecard. Maybe the Universe is sitting on the couch, alternately reading science fiction and watching reruns of Star Trek on Syfy and paying absolutely no attention to me whatsoever, and all my frenzied flapping around is just a waste of energy.

Sometimes I make myself tired.

I think I’ll go sit on the couch.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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