Tag Archives: make yourself small

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.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

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?

Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Matthew Kosloski on Unsplash

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

Cultural Appropriation

This week I want to explore the idea of cultural appropriation . In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions I want to address.

I intend to approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote and illustrated several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .

The Artist

“Sing me a star …”
And the Artist sang a star.
It was a shining star.
“Color me a sun,” said the star.
And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather.
It was a red feather.
“Weave me a tree,” said the feather.
And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web.
“Build me a fence,” said the spider.
And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world.
It was a glorious world.
“Tell me a story,” said the world.
And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …”
It was a wonderful story.
“Tell me some more!”
So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories.
They were strong people.
The people said, “Teach us what love is.”
And the Artist said,
“Sing me a star …”

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.

Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island, by Kitaro ,a Japanese artist.
Maryam, by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
Aye Lon Lon Vadjro, by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
Kozuma, by Professor Trance and the Energizers , who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
Stars Align, by Lindsey Stirling , an American violinist.
Mwari, from the album World of Rhythm.
Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu, by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
Barcelona Nights by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence by Kitaro.

I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects that belong to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.

Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes that cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. The fact is that science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.

Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.

Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?

We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life that persists is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank goodness and all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.

Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash

What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Have you noticed, though? Life–human, animal, plant–goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain that goes right back to the first humans.

Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of ‘Draw Me a Star’ to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.

Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.

The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and all the other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to commit the daily crime of adding myself to the culture of humanity and passing it on.

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

 

Make Yourself Small

I’m getting ready to turn over the manuscript of my first book to a developmental editor. Getting ready means I’m doing one final read through and combing out overused words and phrases using the search (and destroy) feature in my word processor. Over the months and years I’ve been working with my book and mastering the mechanics of writing, I’ve learned a lot about language and my own personal tics and patterns. The biggest problem I’ve found in my writing is unconsciously using passive voice.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

On the face of it, the process of cleaning up a manuscript is straightforward and occasionally mind-numbingly tedious. Looking at 4000 plus occurrences of the word ‘was’ throughout 1000 plus pages is not filled with giggles and takes a long time. I entertain myself with battleship noises every time I eliminate ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘had’, or ‘have’. I also come up with amusing similes for the process. My favorite is that editing is like combing nits out of a child’s hair.

On the plus side, this practice opens up a lot of time in which to notice my unconscious language patterns and think about how my word choice reflects my choices in every other aspect of life. Editing word by word in this way is also a great habit breaker. When I write ‘had’ or ‘have’ now I notice it.

In the past, I’ve also overused ‘gently’, ‘lightly’, ‘quietly’, ‘a little’, ‘went’ (that’s a common one), and ‘softly’. As these patterns become visible to me, I ask myself with some annoyance, why not ‘fiercely’, ‘loudly’, ‘a LOT’ or ‘strode, galloped or dashed’?

I’ll tell you why not. Because I’m female and my culture has successfully taught me to make myself small. That lesson is so central and ubiquitous that I’ve only recently been able to identify it and begin to organize resistance. The message is impossible to see until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

Do you know the old French fairy tale of Bluebeard? A serial wife killer instructs his latest victim to refrain from opening a door in his castle, the door a particular little key opens. Then he leaves her alone with his keys (of course). In his absence, Bluebeard’s young wife and her sisters explore the castle, opening every door, and (naturally) the wife is persuaded there’s no harm in just peeking behind that last forbidden locked door. In the room they discover a row of headless bodies and a pile of heads belonging to Bluebeard’s previous wives. They exit the room (as you might imagine) and conspire to pretend they never unlocked the door. The only problem is the little key that unlocked the door begins to weep drops of blood and nothing they can do makes it stop. Bluebeard returns, discovers the infraction, and … I won’t tell you what happens, because different versions of the story end differently. This fairy tale is embedded in my own book, The Hanged Man, as well. The point is, once some things are understood and seen, they can’t be unseen. There is no going back.

So, consider this commandment with me: Make Yourself Small.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

  • Adhere to the arbitrary cultural ideal of acceptable attractiveness. If you can’t, hate your body, torture it, starve it, distort it, color it, shave it and beat it into compliance. Make yourself conform.
  • Let the media, social media, experts, professionals, your favorite news channel or radio host, your religious leader or the men in your life tell you what to believe and what to think. Don’t you bother your pretty little head trying to understand anything.
  • Make your sexuality, passion and lust small. In fact, make them invisible (you slut).
  • Make your intelligence nonthreatening.
  • Tame your creativity.
  • Don’t ask questions. Don’t search for clarity and truth. Don’t do your own research. Restrain your curiosity.
  • If you must have needs, make them as infinitesimal as possible. Your needs are dust in the wind compared to the convenience, habits and preferences of others.
  • Be silent! You are disqualified from having an opinion. Don’t tell your truth. Others are speaking. Censor your voice.
  • Capture, restrain, cage, shackle, chain and abandon your dreams. Who do you think you are?
  • Deny, belittle, smother and minimize your feelings. Control yourself!
  • Shame on you! Cringe, cower, hide your head! You’re bad and wrong!
  • Be self-contained. Be self-sufficient. Don’t take up too much space. Move lightly. Don’t spend too much money. Don’t be too dramatic. Don’t be too sensitive. Don’t order dessert. Don’t attract attention. Don’t breathe too much air. MAKE YOURSELF SMALL!

You get the idea, I’m sure. This list goes on and on. The message is everywhere, and we’re all affected. It cuts across social, racial, economic, political and gender divides. Failure to toe the line, whatever that line is, results in harsh social and professional consequences, up to and including death. Show me a headline and I’ll pick out this theme. I trip over it a dozen times a day in my own life. Spend five minutes on Facebook reading any thread on any subject and you’ll find this underlying message.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

The surrounding cultural mandate to make ourselves small is toxic, but it’s not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is that we internalize the mandate before we’re even aware of it, and then it becomes so woven into the fabric of our experience we no longer discern it.

Ironically, stubbornly pursuing my passion for writing and my determination to be bigger is what reveals to me the outlines of my own self-sabotage. My habit of making myself small has trickled all the way down to the words I choose. Editing my manuscript has become editing my thoughts and choices, and noticing the words I write and think in has helped me notice my feelings.

My feelings contain a lot of fury and a lot of rebellion, far more than I was aware of when I created this blog last summer. Minor friction with my partner about planning a day or how we utilize counter space taps into a deep vein of lifelong rage and pain about allowing and participating in my own repression and oppression. I have systematically colluded in my own erasure. I’ve agreed to make myself small. I’ve agreed to abdicate my power.

No more. I opened Bluebeard’s chamber, and saw what it contained. The key that unlocked the door was writing, and I’m deleting all the blood-stained words that make my art small. If I fail as a writer, I’m not going to do it softly, gently, lightly or a little. I’m going to do it thunderously, monumentally and profoundly.

It’s time to make myself big.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

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