Tag Archives: creativity

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.

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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

Behind the Shield

Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.

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A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.

A shield implies protection.

I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.

Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.

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In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.

It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.

In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.

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I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the inconvenient, frustrating, dangerous, tedious and harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.

Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.

Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.

No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.

The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.

For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.

Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.

This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?

Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.

In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.

Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash

I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.

The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.

I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.

Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.

From behind the shield: My daily crime.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

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

This, That and the Other

It’s been a busy week. I haven’t done a lot of writing. Some weeks are about notes, research, sudden creative inspirations, edits and days with a foot in two worlds, the world of the auto shop I’m sitting in this minute with a rattling air conditioner in the window to combat the 100 degree heat index outside while mechanics do surgery on the inside of my old Hyundai to fix the air conditioning, and the world of my imagination.

Other weeks are just about life — activity, interaction with others, appointments, friends and unexpected opportunities, along with the small stories of household and routine, like the AC in the car suddenly ceasing to breathe chill and becoming as thickly humid and overheated as the land’s late August exhalations here in Maine.

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A long time ago, when I was a teenager, I got my first job as a summer lifeguard at the local outdoor pool. I loved it. I got trained as a water safety instructor, which means a swim teacher. I was also an IV-certified EMT doing volunteer fire and rescue work.

I’ve never lost my love of water and swimming, and I visit the pool once a week here in Maine. As a regular, I’m familiar with the staff and the facility. A couple of weeks ago one of the pool staff mentioned to me that a part-time position was opening up. Before I left that day I applied for the job and was set up to re-certify as a lifeguard, more than 30 years after the first time. Thirty years. How did that happen?

Now, of course, the process for getting certified is all online. There’s a book, a big, brightly illustrated textbook filled with pictures and graphics, but all the material in the book is also online. The first time around, I learned out of a small paperback manual with black-and-white line-drawn illustrations. The online course is about seven hours of audio, video, multiple-choice questions and written material. At the end, there’s a test. A few hours at the pool in order to practice skills (the most important part) completes the re-certification process.

I’m a good student and confident of my skills, but I unconsciously expected much the same learning experience I had the first time around. However, lifeguarding techniques have changed. The emphasis used to be on personal safety, as drowning people often panic and become dangerous to their rescuers. I spent a lot of practice time in the diving well with a huge college kid built like a tank while he pretended to drown and then tried to drown me as I tried to save him.

Now, there’s great new equipment and gear that make water rescue considerably safer, and the techniques have changed accordingly. Also changed is the way one approaches CPR. When I learned and performed ventilations as a first responder, it was, literally, mouth-to-mouth. Now, lifeguards are equipped with fanny packs in which they carry plastic ventilation masks and Nitrile gloves as protection from body fluids and possible pathogens. Everything, practice included, is done with the mask as a barrier between victim and rescuer.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

It’s a strange feeling to revisit this information. Lots of memories. I don’t know if I’ll get the job, but even if I don’t I’m pleased about the chance to review. I think everyone should take basic first aid and CPR, and it’s been a long time since I had a refresher. The first time around, I was the youngest lifeguard on the team. This time, if hired, I’ll be the oldest. What an interesting circle.

My partner and I love cats. For several years I’ve been uncomfortable with the problem of cat litter disposal. I’ve tried some of the more organic litter, but never found anything both the cat and I liked. The clumping litter is convenient, but I collected it in plastic grocery bags and never found a way to compost it. We’re trying to reduce our use of plastic and our non-compostable waste, and dealing with cat litter has become more and more of a problem ethically. My partner recently came across the idea of using wood stove pellets as cat litter, so we tried it.

I’ve never had a pellet wood stove. It turns out the pellets are small and made of compressed wood scrap, a little bit like animal feed to look at. They’re cheap to buy, especially if you buy a pallet at a time. Cat litter costs three times as much. When they get wet, the pellets dissolve into sawdust. Cleaning the box is like cleaning an animal stall bedded in shavings. I scoop out the damp sawdust and solid waste and throw in a new scoop of pellets. There’s absolutely no smell and less mess outside the box. If our old cat does get pellets between her toes and tracks them outside the box, they’re easy to pick up.

Best of all, we can compost now, and I can stop throwing away any kind of plastic shopping bags. We can switch entirely to canvas bags. Less to haul off to the dump.

My partner has a fleecy polyester blanket in deep, rich colors of brown, black and green that has been a bed for multiple cats for years. We recently cleaned out the little niche it was lying in. I went over both sides with a stiff dry scrubbing brush trying to remove grey and black hair belonging to long-dead cats and then we washed it, but it was still coated with cat hair. I had a lint brush, but that didn’t work at all. I also tried a damp sponge, which is what I’ve always used on upholstery and cloth to remove cat hair. A damp sponge works well if you do it once a week, but this blanket had no attention for years.

So, I googled it. As you can imagine, this is a common problem.

My favorite solution was to obtain a paint roller, wrap the roller in duct tape, sticky side out, and store it, along with a roll of tape, in a closet, bathroom or with cleaning supplies. What a great idea! Fast, easy and cheap. However, I wasn’t sure we had a clean paint roller, so in the end I found a clean plastic dish glove, hung the blanket over the back porch railing, and rubbed it with my gloved hand. I didn’t have much hope, but it worked like a charm. Who knew? Cat hair came away in clumps and clots and floated down onto the grass, as well as adhering to my sweaty face. Too bad it’s not nesting season. I wore out my arm and the blanket looked a lot better, but there was still plenty of hair adhered to it. When I’d rubbed away all I could, I put it in the dryer with a fabric softener sheet on the air setting. A half hour later the dryer trap was filled with cat hair and the blanket was like new.

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev on Unsplash

I also spent part of a day kayaking with a friend on a lake. Too bad I’m not as graceful with paddling as I am swimming. Too bad my arms are about as strong as spaghetti noodles. Too bad I’m so inept the paddles clunk against the side of the kayak with every stroke. Too bad I can’t get the hang of using the paddles without having water run down them and into my lap, or inadvertently bumping my long-suffering friend in the head.

I had a fantastic time.

Then we spent a hot afternoon with an old friend of my partner’s shooting at round metal targets with various firearms and varying degrees of accuracy while I asked a thousand and one questions and continued my education on handling guns safely and developing confidence and skill in using them.

So that, friends, is what I have been doing instead of working on the sort of post I usually write. In the pause from writing, I’ve been refilling the well of creativity with everything, and with nothing. With what it’s like to be alive in the world. With sore shoulders from paddling, remembering old rescue skills and long days on a lifeguard stand in the sun, the challenges and joys of living with cats and the smell of cordite. With spending a morning working in my friend’s farm store chatting to locals, enjoying the animals and studying my lifeguarding manual. With heaving boxes around and shelving books during my volunteer hours in the used bookstore. All of this will somehow, some way, someday recycle into my writing, because everything does.

My car is ready. I’m off to pick up my partner’s laptop at the computer shop in air-conditioned comfort. Then I’ll go home and give this draft another look; decide either to delete the whole thing and start over or get it ready to publish in the morning. I wish you all a good week and a safe Labor Day.

Photo by Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

 

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