Tag Archives: creativity

Living the Questions

I haven’t very often met a problem in life I couldn’t solve. I have moments of bewilderment, of course, but I generally am able to figure out what’s not working and how to fix it. At times the fix is so difficult I delay, avoid, deny and procrastinate until I’m forced to take the action I knew I was going to have to take from the beginning. Such delays frequently make everything worse, but sometimes it takes me a while to do what I know must be done.

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Now and then, however, I find myself completely stymied. There seems no solution, no detour, no fix within my power.

Being self-sufficient and self-reliant, when this happens I feel panicked and despairing. It usually does not occur to me to ask for help. I’m more likely to withdraw and try to figure out what the hell to do privately.

I’m in the habit of making daily notes, a kind of abbreviated journal. I do keep a journal as well, but my daily notes are in the form of a brief list, noting things like exercise, working hours, what I’m reading, what’s in my attention, and little snippets of observations from the day. I also note any creative inspirations.

It occurred to me this morning, as I walked down through a soggy field to the brimming river that borders our property, that it might be time to accept that some problems have no solution, at least not at the moment we want them. I remembered Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, writing about living the question.

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet.

As I make and review my daily notes, I have a lot of judgement about how I spent my time. I often feel I’ve wasted my day or not produced enough. I’ve always concentrated on doing and having rather than being, and I’m hard on myself when I don’t see activities in my daily notes that I was taught to define as “useful.”

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I wondered, while I was walking, what would happen if I wrote at least one question in my daily notes about my activity and stopped judging the way I spend every single second. Can I faithfully record my daily experience without judging it either positively or negatively?

Can I note my current unsolvable problem clearly, simply, honestly and neutrally, state my feelings about it, and formulate a great question? For example, if I’m binging on my favorite numbing activity, instead of beating myself up over it can I make a note about doing it and ask myself about the feelings I’m trying to numb?

It takes a kind of mental strength to live peacefully with questions, to pause and hold them in our laps and refrain from desperately seeking answers. I have several times been connected to people who disliked and resisted questions. That always catches my attention. I think of questions as a tool for opening up lost or hidden feelings and thoughts. In fact, as I grow older I’m beginning to value questions more than answers, even though questions contain the most tension. Maybe an answer or solution, after all, is not the goal.

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Judgement feels good because it relieves my tension, but judgement is limiting and small. It weakens power and reduces possibility. Questions keep everything wide open and foster curiosity and flexible thinking. Judgement is black and white.

I assume that all problems have a fix and all questions have an answer. That might be true. On the other hand, maybe some problems feel unsolvable because they are, or what I need to work with is my perception. Maybe what I call a problem is in fact a gift I haven’t yet unwrapped properly.

Unanswered questions and insolvable problems. I don’t like the way they feel. I’ve always resisted giving them time, space and attention. That hasn’t worked particularly well, and I’m ready to try something new. We seem to be much better at judgement than questions in this culture right now, a trend that is both divisive and dangerous. There are questions aplenty, but it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from lies, and many times the questions themselves are not honest, but merely tools for labeling and judging.

Asking an honest question and living without an answer. Challenging judgement. My daily crimes.

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Mapping the Story

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much living a life resembles writing a story.

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We love our stories, whether they be in the form of songs, film, books (digital or tangible) or spoken language. We love the nonfiction of history and science, memoirs and fiction. Story has anchored me to life since before I learned to read.

During my writing hours I’m engrossed in creating characters and weaving them together. One scene gives rise to another. There must be action and movement. There must be some kind of story logic. Every word must help drive the story forward. Characters need to be believable and recognizable in their behavior and growth. As an audience, we want to see characters change and learn. We want to commiserate with and applaud our favorite characters. We want them to do well.

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As a writer, I don’t have total control or knowledge of my story. I create a rough outline, characters and setting and start writing. If I’ve done well with my characters, the act of writing animates them into becoming collaborators rather than pawns. I’ve learned the characters who remain passive and one-dimensional are weak and need to be reworked. I may have a direction I want my characters to go in, but strong ones frequently refuse to comply with my outline and notes and we wind up sitting glaring at one another with our arms folded, my character looking out from the laptop screen at me at the keyboard. The flow of the writing stops then, until I set aside my rigidity and work with other possibilities.

This is exactly like life. How often have we gone down a blind alley and wound up with our noses against a brick wall but been too stubborn or exhausted or despairing to retrace our steps and choose another direction? How often have we taken a well-worn path of anxiety and wound up in a trackless desert or marsh, floundering, miserable and lost?

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As we journey through the story of our own lives, however, our view is from the bottom of the valley rather than from a high mountain from which we can see the whole thing. We live our stories one moment at a time, losing sight of the beginning and never knowing the end until we reach it. Our lives are filled with things like visits to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, lost car keys, bills, errands, flat tires and dead car batteries, and colds.

But these details, so ubiquitous in what we call “real life” add nothing to a great film or book. They’re not sexy and entertaining. Nobody wants to watch Wonder Woman floss her teeth or cut her toenails. We don’t see our favorite heroes spending hours hunched over their phones, tablets and games.

We can’t tell the sweeping story of our lives while we’re living them. We know when things feel good or bad, but we don’t look beyond that most of the time. We’re more concerned with our discomfort and disappointment than we are with the inherent ebb and flow of life.

We don’t think about what our story requires. We don’t see our most difficult times as turning points essential to our story.

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As a writer, however, I know tension, conflict and obstacles are necessary. They create movement and growth. They create change. They force characters to reveal weaknesses and summon strengths. They teach resiliency and test faith.

What would it be like if we could watch our own lives as though watching the next big superhero movie? What if we could revel in the setting we find ourselves in, even if we decide to escape it and find a new one? What if we chose to feel inspired by the unpredictability of our unfolding lives and heartened by the way obstacles shape us?

What if it was all an essential, beautiful part of our story?

What if . . . ?

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Gardening For Grief

Working in a fitness/rehabilitation center in January makes our cultural and personal obsession with our bodies and looks inescapable. All day long I hear conversations about health, pain, weight loss, exercise and fitness goals and diet. There’s something inescapably seductive about the idea of making a fresh and successful start in a brand new year.

At home, in my peaceful attic where the winter light steals in, poet David Whyte suggests making ourselves big for loss; if we have a healthy interior landscape, we are better able to absorb painful experiences.

I’ve written about making ourselves big, but I was thinking of things like courage, passion, creativity and curiosity, not loss.

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Whyte’s inside-out wisdom, which has caught my attention before, provides a new frame I’ve been playing with as I live my life. It seems that everywhere I turn I find this idea of loss and how we manage it. I’ve been reading a memoir entitled “This Life is in Your Hands” by Melissa Coleman. It’s about her childhood with her family on the coast of Maine during the 70s as part of the back-to-the-land movement. It’s a fascinating story encompassing all kinds of ideas, beliefs and discoveries about what it takes to leave much of modern life and wrest a living from the land. It’s also a story about a gradually unraveling family, doing their best to create a life they believe in but ultimately defeated by their ideals and the death of a child.

Coleman writes, “There were no gardeners of grief in our community.”

What a poignant, beautiful line that is. Gardeners of grief. There it is again, I thought when I read it, the idea of making intentional space, even a large space, for a feeling we typically avoid, deny or refuse to deal with.

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I wondered yesterday, sitting on the lifeguard stand watching the pool during a water aerobics class, how it would be if we focused New Year goals and intentions on our interior landscape rather than our external appearance. Would more people be more successful in making the changes they say they want? Would support and action in addressing our interior terrain naturally lead to the kinds of external changes so many of us seek?

Loss. What can we say about it? Some loss is so long and drawn out it’s almost chronic, and we become numb to it, though it shadows our lives. Other losses are shockingly abrupt and traumatic, and others still somewhere in between. Loss is painful in itself, but our feelings about who or what is lost can add significantly to our pain, especially if we don’t manage them properly.

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I’ve had two catastrophic losses in my life, though I feel foolish revealing them. The first was the loss of a diner. It was a little ramshackle shack with a spongy floor that dipped and swayed as you walked across it, room for about seven tables with mismatched and broken chairs, and a grease-saturated kitchen. It was less than a five-minute walk from my old house in a tiny Colorado mountain town, and for years I ate breakfast and/or lunch there at least once a week. I was working at the local public school while the diner was in business, so I knew all the high schoolers who bussed, waited, washed dishes and cooked. My own sons worked there in their turn. In the decade after my boys left and I was alone, the diner became like a second home to me. I was often the first customer of the morning, waiting patiently for the door to be unlocked with my travel cup of tea steaming in my hand and a book or notebook and pen under my arm. They made my breakfast without asking, as I always had the same thing, and Amy, the owner, would sit with me, sipping a cup of coffee, while we exchanged desultory early morning talk or were just quiet together.

I always felt welcomed at the diner. I loved it, and those who worked there, and they at least tolerated me with friendliness and kindness. I felt seen. One day Amy told me, with some reluctance, that she was closing it down. The endless grind of owning and operating a restaurant had become too much, and it was getting harder and harder to avoid problems with licensing and inspection as the building deteriorated. She had dreaded telling me. We sat across from one another and wept.

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The second loss happened just a few weeks later, when the dearest companion of my life, a crippled long-haired orange cat,  died quietly at home,

These two losses left me maimed and feeling unable to go on. I no longer recognized my life in that place, though I’d lived there for 20 years, raised children, worked, volunteered, danced and told stories. Strange, to realize the diner and Ranger as the only two pillars holding up my life. Why were these losses so much more terrible than my sons outgrowing the town, the school and me, and leaving? That was extraordinarily difficult and painful, and I thought I’d never recover or fill the hole they left in my days, but I still recognized myself and my life. I wasn’t completely undone. I knew we were all making the right choice to part ways and I would go on.

Remembering, it occurs to me my internal landscape had shriveled and withered without my noticing. Ranger and the diner had provided me with warmth, companionship, acceptance, love and belonging. In those two aspects of my life I was completely honest and authentic. When they were gone I was left with a grueling job that just barely supported me and was highly stressful, a home I loved and had worked hard to create but which was empty and desolate without Ranger, and the feeling that I was little more than a burden and a disappointment to nearly everyone in my life (including myself) and the town in general (with a couple of notable exceptions). I was nothing and had nothing that anybody wanted or needed, and my life felt like a lie.

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When I think now about intentionally building an internal landscape, a bountiful landscape with lots of space, I realize the interior wasteland I was trying to live with before. A greasy spoon hole-in-the-wall diner and a cat were the only two things that tied me firmly to life. I was not big enough to absorb their loss. I was always busy, but I wasn’t big. All my attention was on trying to please others and get loved.

Is getting a life, being in a life, creating a life about being busy and having things to do, or is it about building an interior landscape? Scientists are beginning to realize how important complexity is in living systems. Perhaps complexity is not about externals, such as how long our to-do lists are or our New Year resolutions, but about the interior ground of our lives. What if we were each able to build a complex interior terrain with not just room but welcome for all our feelings and needs, an interior system that could elegantly break down, absorb and transform loss, rage and fear? What if we nurtured several kinds of healthy relationships, contributed our experience and skills in more than one way and found a variety of creative outlets and activities to enjoy? What if we invited and allowed both loss and gain, joy and despair to dwell in our interior landscape? Would a more varied, complex and honest inner life allow us to find relief and respite from the inevitable losses and changes we experience?

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It seems to me the answer can only be yes.

Furthermore, if we choose to successfully build and maintain a complex interior landscape, will all the outward things we worry so much about either seem less important or more easily managed? If we’re more physically active and heal our relationship with food because we’re cleaning up and creating our interior landscape rather than because we want to lose weight, will the re-focus of our intention mean less resistance and failure?

All my life I’ve tried to hold back my feelings because I’m afraid of being overwhelmed by them, or of what others will say or think of me. The problem is that I can’t pick and choose which feelings to allow and which to exclude. If I’m going to love wholeheartedly, I’m also wide open to the pain of loss. The idea of creating an internal landscape spacious enough to allow every feeling and experience unlimited depth and width is an interesting contrast to my impulse to recoil, withdraw and barricade myself into a small stone cave for the rest of my life.

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Now and then I need that internal cave, certainly. A bolt hole is essential to me. But surely there’s a whole interior world I can build outside the cave when I’m ready to step out of it again, a world with gardens and orchards of feelings and possibility, a world of connections and people to love and learn from, a complex inner terrain in which to get lost and find myself again. Best of all, my interior landscape is solely my own creation. In it, I can be utterly naked and free from concern about what others think of me. I can be fully authentic and honest without fear or shame. I can feel what I feel and have what I need.

Gardening for loss, for fear and for pain. Landscaping for joy, confidence and healing. Welcoming complexity and delving beneath the surface of life and of myself. Making myself big for the hard stuff.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted