Tag Archives: learning

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

Defining Intelligence

I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”

“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.

I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.

As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.

I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.

When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.

I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small . I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to blog about.

What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?

Intelligence is defined on an internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.

The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s blog on work . Here again we have a simple definition for a word that’s positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.

Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?

Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.

We give up arguing with what is.

Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers that each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.

Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.

For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means that everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.

I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.

I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.

So there it is. The practice of intelligence. My daily crime.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Get over it.

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





Dancing Home

Last weekend I took my own advice and surrendered to the now of my life.  Two big, heavy wooden doors opened like wings and I came home to dance between them.

New England Barn

One of the dearest friends of my life introduced me (kicking and screaming all the way) to dance more than ten years ago.

“No,” I said, “I can’t do that.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t know how.”

But she, in her infinite female wisdom, nagged and niggled and poked and prodded until at last I agreed to try it.  Once.  Just to get her to shut up about it!

So I tried it and found myself there, waiting.  I rarely missed a dance for years and years afterward.  Ours was a small group of dancers, ebbing and flowing over the years, but the core group remained remarkably the same.  Sometimes there were only two of us.  It didn’t matter.  It was a safe place, a place to be with myself in candlelight, a place to be in my body without thought, shame or responsibility.  Everything happened at dance.  We raged, we sobbed, we hurt, we lay on the floor.  We shouted and clapped, farted, belched, giggled, played, pounded on the walls and danced until we drooled.  It’s one of the few places in my life where I’ve felt I belonged.

Leaving my dance group was the most painful loss when I left my old life and came to Maine.  I knew I could never replace it, but I hoped to find another place, another group, another dance.

The farmhouse I live in is more than a hundred years old and that means the ceilings are low.  I don’t need a lot of room to dance by myself, but I do need to be able to move freely.  I did dance a couple of times the first winter and spring I was here, but I had to make myself small so I didn’t scrape the ceiling with my hands and my mind was filled with what I’d left behind.  It was so painful I didn’t want to face it again.

In Colorado we danced in a yoga studio.  It was a beautiful space—clean, high ceilinged, wood floored.  Perfect.  Our little town was safe after dark, the studio was easily accessible, it was heated, there was a bathroom available and for most of us it was less than a five minute drive to get there.

Since I’ve come to Maine I’ve searched for a local group.  I’ve talked to several women about dance.  Some have been intrigued, but they’re busy, or they have partners, or we don’t live very close together, or there’s no place to get together and do it.  You know.

Here, the nearest town is twenty minutes away in good weather.  I’m sure there are places in town we might use, but I don’t know where.  Or who.  Or how.  I’m intimidated and overwhelmed and it seems ridiculous to try to find a suitable gathering place when there’s no dance group to use it.

So I stopped trying.  Too painful.  After all, now I have a partner to hang out with in the evenings.  I told myself I’d keep thinking about it, look for openings, and eventually, maybe, be able to start another group.  Or even find one.  One day.  When we had more money.  If we moved somewhere else.  If we had a better car that could actually deal with driving on winter nights.

But this summer there’s a lot of movement and change, not all of it comfortable.  I’m learning a lot.  I’m feeling a lot.  Writing is good, and so is swimming, but dance accesses something deeper.  I’ve known for a few weeks now I need to find a way to get back into those depths for my sake and for the sake of my loved ones.

So I decided to quit playing games with myself and figure this out.

Naturally, an old farmhouse in Maine comes equipped with a barn.  Ours is a total of New England barn in winterfour stories, a typical New England nineteenth century barn   There’s a bat colony in the top of it and it’s an apartment house for rodents.  It’s constructed of gorgeous beams and posts, high ceilings, huge blocks of stone in the foundation.  Windows look across the tops of the trees and over the river valley, most of them without glass now.  We have six cords of hardwood stored in the garage level and miscellaneous stuff on the top two floors.  The spirit of the building is in the bottom, though, which is accessed through two huge heavy wooden doors that are permanently propped open in the back of the building.  This area is mostly underground and the stone foundation can be clearly seen.  There are old pens and animal stalls built by hand from the plentiful wood here; not boards, but logs and saplings, rough cut.  The mowed area in front of this lower floor is not visible from house, driveway or road and is surrounded by trees.

So, I built a playlist of good music, a mix of old familiar dance tunes and some new discoveries.  I swept and raked, picked up trash and got rid of some impressive spider webs.  I found an old rusty tin can, filled it with dirt and stuck incense in it.  I put on a skirt and some jewelry, found a pair of light shoes I thought would work (I’ve always danced barefoot), grabbed a yoga mat to sit in the grass and stretch on and went to see what would happen.

They were all there, my dancers.  It seemed to me I could almost reach out and touch them.  They mingled with the ghosts of animals who once lived in this barn, long dead; generations of birds, now flown from empty nests in the rafters; and the dirty lace of old cobwebs.  My feet felt clumsy and heavy in shoes and it wasn’t night, but my body remembered how to move and my brain remembered how to lie down and rest.  The music swept me up, pushed me with sharp elbows and knees, shook me by the scruff of the neck, played with me and soothed me.  I danced with my expectations, my stories, my fears and limitations and loss.  I danced with my disappointment and grief and rage.  I threw down my rigidity, refusal and denial and danced in their blood.  I danced with the joy of coming back to myself.

I danced in an old barn, in a new life, but not alone.  The past is still with me, the dancers I knew green and supple in my memory.  The pain of change is not, after all, too great to bear.  I don’t need money.  I don’t need a better car.  I don’t need anything that hasn’t been here all along.  I don’t need to wait for anyone else or anything else.  I just needed to surrender to what is now.

So this one’s for you, my dear Bobbi; for you, Jill, in all your beautiful sensitivity; for you, Rena, who taught me so much about strength, courage and being real; and for you, Pat, who brought essential balance to our group and allowed us to dance with a playful small boy.

Half a world away, you all still honor my dance with your presence.


The experience of dance is a hard thing to convey to someone who’s never done it.  I’ve written extensively about it, however, in my book.  Please see ‘The Hanged Man’ page for a new excerpt.

We based our dance practice in Colorado on the work of Gabrielle Roth, and I still follow this template.  Please see my web resource page for links.  Also, here’s a wonderful piece about the power of dance:  https://godsandradicals.org/2016/08/22/in-praise-of-the-dancing-body/

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted