Tag Archives: fear

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

Yule: The Fool’s Journey

Yule, the winter solstice, is upon us once again. This year, here in the deeps of darkness, I’m thinking about The Fool’s journey.

The Fool, by Emily Balivet
https://www.etsy.com/listing/243456714/the-fool-tarot-art-original-acrylic

The Fool is an archetype, a recurrent symbol in mythology, folklore and story. Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk is a Fool. The Fool shows up as a simpleton, an innocent, one who is ignorant, inexperienced and silly. Archetypes have two sides, shadow and light. In modern culture The Fool has been reduced to its shadow, its most negative attributes, an insult, a curse and a contemptuous label.

But the old tales hint at a deeper, older meaning of the archetype. In fairy tales, The Fool is often the youngest sibling, the least able and powerful character, who nevertheless becomes the only one to successfully complete the task or quest. Often, The Fool has a good heart, or some extraordinary purity of character that allows him/her to be successful. The Fool has faith in magic, in talking birds and beasts, in the advice of old women, in objects given by peddlers at crossroads. To be a fool is to be held in a circle containing everything and nothing, to be without judgement, rules, expectations, cynicism or fear. The Fool is an archetype of youthful energy, bright, glowing and optimistic, filled with hopes and dreams.

Characters of this archetype set out, sometimes exiled or driven from their home, sometimes volunteering to go, with nothing but their shining confidence, intuition and willingness to do a task or find a solution. They rarely have external resource, but carry a great wealth of internal assets, including, interestingly, a kind of innocent cleverness that arises from authenticity and the simplicity of great integrity. The Fool has everything she or he needs in the form of untapped, chaotic potential.

It seems to me we’ve lost sight of the sacred role of The Fool. We kill foolish behavior with punishment, restriction, control, mocking and tribal shaming. We teach our children to avoid playing The Fool by making “good” choices. We avoid looking or feeling like fools. Foolishness is equated with immaturity, irresponsibility and naiveté. We resist being wrong or admitting we made a mistake. Playfulness is no longer a priority.

I see The Fool as an essential first step in The Hero’s journey. It’s where we all start as we undertake any new experience or endeavor. All Heroes start out as Fools, and perhaps all Fools are also Heroes. The Fool archetype creates space in which we learn resilience, strength, courage and creative problem solving. In the gap between The Fool’s happy hopes and dreams and reality is the place where Self is shaped, and the more fully we embrace this archetype, the more of our own potential we realize.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

That’s what I believe, when I think carefully about it, but that’s not how I show up in the world.

I hate to feel like a fool. Humiliation is one of the most uncomfortable emotions I experience. I dread appearing irresponsible or naïve. I’ve bought into the cultural definition of foolishness equaling stupidity, and I don’t want to be perceived as stupid. I’ve been warned at the beginning of every Fool’s journey I’ve embarked upon with head shaking, patronizing smiles and dire, ominous warnings: “You have no idea how hard marriage is.” “Boy, is your life going to change!” “You’re going to hate it!” “You’ll find out I was right!” “It won’t last.” “Nothing will ever be the same.”

As a parent, I shook my own head, smiled patronizingly and issued warnings. I wanted to protect my sons from “bad” choices, from danger, from illness and injury and from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment, the very things that help us figure out who we are.

The Fool is an archetype precisely because it’s so persistent and present in our lives, because it’s our nature to go into the world and explore, seek, complete tasks and engage in quests. I wonder what it would be like if we all framed The Fool’s journey as sacred space, as a necessary and beautiful rite of passage, filled with potential and promise. In that case, revisiting this archetype throughout our lives at any age could be viewed as a chance to refresh our willingness, consent and curiosity about ourselves and what might be possible, a chance to apply the skills we’ve learned in our previous cycles as The Fool rather than stay frozen in bitterness, shame, regret and fear.

It’s true that every new journey is a risk. None of us could have imagined what it would be like to be an adult, to fall in love, to get married, to have children, to move across the country, to get the perfect job, to battle illness or injury, to age. Dire warnings and ominous predictions are pointless and useless as we navigate in our lives. Sincere and simple congratulations from others; faith in our own intuition, intelligence and strength and the experience of unconditional love and belief in our abilities from friends and family is what we need as we push forward in search of new horizons.

Yule signals the return of the light and new beginnings. We all embark on a new cycle, and none of us knows what it will bring. The Fool is tying together a bundle of food and setting out, following a new road into an unknown place, exploring, perhaps searching for something. Interested, curious, fearless and confident, The Fool begins to walk into the future as the light strengthens once more.

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

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

Scrying the Depths

Scrying is “the practice of looking into a suitable medium in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions.” (Wikipedia)

My laptop has developed the Technical Flu and is in the shop. I’m chagrined to discover how much I depend on it. It’s the only portable device I have, as I still resist the pressure to obtain even a cell phone. Suddenly, my access to music, DVDs and the Internet is restricted. I know, it’s a first world problem, but I’m not complaining. I whined for the first few days, but as I sit down to write this blog what I mostly feel is a kind of grateful wonder.

In my laptop’s absence I find a lot of quiet. Without my usual entertainment and distraction, my ears, eyes and attention are freed. As I work on the second book of my Gaia trilogy, I’ve picked up a sketch pad and colored pencils in order to create a map of my very complex world where the myth, fairy tale and oral history of several cultures meet and interact. Without access to my one-dimensional outline on my word processor, I recognize the need for a two or even three-dimensional model to truly show all the connections and correspondences of the trilogy. I’ve discovered new depths to my creative vision and work and considered new ways to approach it.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

Folk and fairy tales often speak of depths. Caves, tunnels, wells and stairways descend to other places, magical underground kingdoms where evil beings lurk and flex their destructive forces and unexpected but powerful animals or crones or fairies save the hero or heroine. Gypsies, oracles, shamans and seers scry crystal balls or pools of water, smoke, fire, mirrors or stones. Runes whisper messages. Tarot cards reveal enigmatic insight.

We are in the depths of seasonal darkness now. In two weeks the light begins to return. Here in Maine the day starts to fade at 3:30 in the afternoon and an hour later it’s full dark. What do the depths of darkness hold? What lies between the stars? What dreams unfold behind our eyelids during the long sleeping hours? What lives, hunts and dies in the winter-bare forests under the moon? What stirs in the dark sea’s deeps?

If we could separate ourselves and all those around us from our tech and toys, if we could all free our eyes from the screen and our ears from the noise and look, clear-eyed and undistracted, at those around us, what would we see in one another? If we were forced to sit quietly at a window with nothing but a chair for company, what might we discover in the world around us? If we stand naked and alone in front of a mirror and look into our own eyes, what looks back at us?

What lies in the depths of longing and loss? What lies denied and amputated in the deeps of a soul? What waits to be rediscovered or reclaimed, healed or released?

Some of the deepest, darkest, coldest and most fearsome depths in my life turned out to be only ankle-deep after all. Ankle deep and unpleasant, but, once challenged and understood, pathetic and sad rather than powerful and terrible. Shallows pretending to be depths. A leech or two instead of a sea monster.

Other shallows are so seductive, so enticing, so shiny, that we joyously bare our feet and run into them, gradually wading farther and farther from shore, our attention captured, our gaze fixed on their captivating surface, and there we stay until we die.

All my life I’ve been told that I’m too intense. I’ve never known exactly what that means, and the criticism never fails to both hurt and irritate, especially as I can’t get more information. Asking probing questions is simply an example of my obnoxious intensity, it appears.

I wonder this morning if what people are expressing is discomfort with my love for the depths, for the dark where miracles happen, for the hidden thing, be it dreadful or dazzling. Questioning is falling out of social favor. Political correctness shackles and gags us. The shiny shallows are the place to be, where text messages, emojis and ‘likes’ glitter and frolic and algorithms and ideology teach us what to think, believe, value and buy.

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

I can be seduced by the shallows as well as anyone, and have several times been fooled by them, but somewhere inside me resides a wild thing, a female creature that glories in the power of the dark and deep and always returns to passion, emotion, and creativity. I want to dive into the night sky and swim naked among the stars and nebulae. I want to see and be seen, hear and be heard, know and be known. I navigate with a mouthful of questions and an insatiable curiosity. I don’t want life to be pretty and distracting and shiny. I don’t want all my dreams to be sunlit and filled with flowers and kittens.

I want life to be as it is, smelling of musk and blood and starlight, dark and powerful and magnificent beyond my puny imagination. I want the hot eroticism of life and the torn flesh of death. I want to embrace the unknowable, kiss the lips of mystery and reclaim and wield the full power of my fear.

I choose to live in the depths.

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

My daily crime.

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