Tag Archives: questions

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.

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 and I stamp on it immediately.

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.

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.

The Roaming Gypsy Angel

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

  • 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.

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 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.

Original art by David Wyatt

It’s time to make myself big.

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

Authentic Feminine Power

I came across a prayer to Baba Yaga  recently. I’ve spent a lot of time with Baba Yaga, who is a supernatural female figure out of Slavic European folklore. I’ve told stories about her for years, and she’s an important character in my book. She’s a powerful life-death-life-death figure and has many names, among them Storm Raiser, Primal Mother, Lady of Beasts and Mother of Witches. In spite of our long acquaintance, I’ve only lately begun to love her.

Sometimes I think the most important thing to understand about life is power. It structures every single relationship, most of all our relationships with ourselves. Power creates wars, cults, murderers, abusers, tyrants, rebels and perhaps angels.

I believe we have a great longing for our individual mislaid power, such a longing that we’ve lost track of what it is or how to recognize it in our hunger and desperation. I don’t know how else to explain our mindless obedience to the media, to our culture, to our religions, to the almighty “they” who instruct us how to live, how to eat, what to believe, how to look, how to buy and how to be.

At this time in my life, and at this time in my country’s history, I cling to Baba Yaga, because she represents sanity in a world becoming more insane by the day. The prayer reminds me of what true feminine power is—and is not.

True feminine power wastes no time on despots and bullies who conceal their fear and impotence behind dishonesty and the willingness to use force. It’s not her business to prop them up. They have nothing she needs and they’re not worth her attention, for they shall not endure.

True feminine power is real. It’s authentic. It’s not bound by chains of political correctness, manners, fear or ideology. A woman in her authentic power is, according to need and whim, a child, a wild woman, a bitch, a seductive temptress, a crone, and a creature of magic. Obedience and compliance are not in her nature.

True feminine power seeks the hidden thing, within and without. She pares away layers, stories, masks, facades, dreams, visions, expectations, and shoulds. She’s a persistent poker, prier and meddlesome busybody in holey tennis shoes. She opens drawers, boxes and jars, looks behind forbidden doors and never stops asking questions. She refuses to shut up, close her eyes or pretend, and views everything by the stark light of a fiery skull without flinching. She doesn’t need anyone to agree with her, and she doesn’t need everyone to agree with her. She doesn’t argue with what is. The truth cannot escape her.

True feminine power doesn’t prostitute for love and validation. Baba Yaga eats sulfur to make her farts more momentous and fertilizes her body hair to make it grow more abundant. She’s hairy legs and iron-tipped fingers and teeth sharpened on bones. She takes a lover when she feels like it, but she kicks him out of her bed before dawn and doesn’t offer breakfast. Her body is not for sale, her hair is the color it wants to be, and she has no use for a painted mask over her face.

True feminine power is a teacher of magic. She teaches the sorting of one thing from another, cleansing, lighting a fire, the alchemy of cooking. She’s the power of the cauldron, the cup, the womb and the growing seed. She’s the wisdom of bone and blood, seed and water, life and death. A woman in her authentic feminine power learns to feed and nurture the magic of her intuition and creativity. She knows they are the most priceless jewels she will ever have.

True feminine power feels huge, deep feelings of rage, grief, joy and lust. When fear accosts a woman in her power, she spits in its eye and knocks it down on her way forward. An authentically powerful woman knows how to cause earthquakes with her dance, bring rain with her tears, melt rocks with her passion and sow stars with her joy. She allows no one to make her small.

True feminine power expresses all her fine feelings. She shrieks, curses, cackles, stomps, grumps, slams and mutters. She will not be silent. She stays up all night drumming and dancing if the mood takes her, and sleeps all day when she wants. She collects secrets, stories, marbles and insults with equal enjoyment. In fact, she says and does exactly what she wants to do and say.

(Yes, I said marbles.)

True feminine power is ancient and enduring. It’s coarse silver hair, aching bones, pearly stretch marks, lumpy thighs, scars and wrinkles and cracks and crevices. A woman in her power bleeds, first red and then the invisible silver blood of wisdom that arrives when the children of her body have become ghosts that live only in her memory. A woman in her full authentic power smiles kindly on the young and beautiful, because they are not yet capable of her wisdom.

True feminine power knows how to live through the night alone, how to wander in the desert, how to go underground and live in a cave among the roots of life when necessary. She survives the conflagration, the invasion, the prison sentence, the betrayal, the loss, the beating, the chaos, the flood. A woman in her authentic power is rooted in the stars, in the trees, in the mountains, in the sea and in the earth. She welcomes the cycles and seasons. Change is her strength. She knows how to bide her time and let die what must, because she knows her power will endure in women who come after her.

A woman in her power is not confused. She knows there’s no authentic power in money or position, youth or beauty or hairless legs. She knows her wellspring of power is internal and if she can’t find it, no one will. True feminine power defines her own success, her own goals, her own agenda, her own spiritual practice, her own beauty and her own rules.

Baba Yaga’s specialty is too-good maidens of all ages. That’s how I met her. When the Baba is finished with such a maiden, she’s either saltier and wiser or dead. Baba Yaga eats the dead ones with vinegar to cut the sweetness.

It’s a good time for prayers. Perhaps it’s always a good time for prayers. Here’s mine.

Baba Yaga, Grandmother, we offer you our sweat, tears, blood, milk and urine. Initiate us into life and death with our own blood and bone. Lead us back into love for ourselves, our bodies and our earth. Help us, your daughters, find our authentic feminine power again.

Go to my Good Girl Rebellion page for a picture of Baba Yaga–maybe! For more about her, see a snippet from my book on my Hanged Man page.

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

The Limits Of Our Power

In the last week I had a discussion with a young friend who’s going through a hard time.  I made myself available out of concern and compassion, telling my friend if she wanted to talk I would listen.

So I listened, and asked questions, and did my best to enter into her experience.  My agenda wasn’t to rescue, to fix or to advise, just to let her know I cared and help her think about options.

My intentions were good, but I walked away feeling as though I’d only irritated her and made things worse.  Ever since, I’ve been questioning what I said and how I handled this interaction.  Was I patronizing?  Condescending?  Obnoxiously optimistic? Aggressively parental?  Didn’t I listen well?

Or maybe my questions were the problem, not because they were bad questions but because they were good questions.  I’m reminded of people in my life who have approached my distress with the kinds of questions that made me want to hang up the phone or slap their face.  Not because they were bad questions, but because they challenged me to break out of the shrinking cage I was in.  They challenged me to take control, take responsibility, face my fear or think outside my usual box.

I’m not sure why, but when I’m good and miserable, or at panic stations, or swept up in powerlessness, I want someone to agree with me.  It’s hopeless.  I’m helpless.  It will never get better.  I made mistakes, bad choices, stupid decisions and now I’m paying a price I deserve to pay.  I’ve dug a hole so deep I can’t get out without some kind of divine intervention.  I need to be rescued.  I have to wait for someone to help me.

Sitting here writing this it sounds silly, but it’s not silly when you’re in it.  We’ve all had times like this.  What I know is that my best friends in crisis are the ones who metaphorically kick me in the butt.  They won’t walk down the pity path with me.  They won’t agree that I screwed up and made bad choices.  They don’t admit the past was apocalyptic and the future will be catastrophic.

These people keep redirecting me back to what I can do right now to help myself, and away from everything else, and sometimes they’re not gentle about it.

This is tricky because it’s counterintuitive, at least to me.  When I’m faced with a problem, I want to square right up to it, obsess, throw myself at it, beat my head against it and leave the rest of my life unoccupied.  It’s either an all-out wrestling match or I eat ice cream out of the carton (a big carton!), stop taking showers, binge watch ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ all night and sleep all day.

Neither of these approaches has worked for me.  The only thing that has ever worked is to identify where my power is right now and let the rest go.  I don’t know why that works, I don’t know how it works, but I know that it does.

When I was a low-income single mom, what this meant was realizing that summer was ending and the boys would need new winter coats that I couldn’t afford, and we would need groceries a lot sooner than that, but I had no money.  And yes, I was working.  At one point I worked two jobs and attended school.

Anyway, I developed a habit of shaping the day around what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do.  I tried not to think about the next day, the next week, the next winter.  I figured out what we’d eat that day from what we had, and I did what I could do—all the things that can be done without money.  Like playing with Legos on the living room floor, or taking a walk, or reading aloud to the boys, or doing laundry, or working in the garden, or scrubbing the kitchen floor.

Some days were so hard I just lived five minutes at a time.  It was all I could handle.

My kids are in their twenties now.  All those five minutes, all those one-day-at-a-times passed and we weren’t homeless, we weren’t without food and we always managed winter coats, thanks to Goodwill.  I have no idea how it all worked.  I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

Now, it’s true that I found jobs, got trained and educated, did without things like cell phones and cable TV.  I did what I could to help myself through those years, and I had a lot of outside help, too.  But my point is I tried not to get stalled with my nose touching a brick wall.  I tried to look in another direction—in a direction where I could make choices.  Doing that didn’t make the brick wall disappear, but somehow it allowed me to move past it.

Getting back to my friend, I tried to ask questions about where she did have power, but she felt powerless in every direction and the questions only reinforced the feeling instead of helping her reconsider her situation.  I left the conversation feeling upset and frustrated and decided I needed to take a step back, give my friend space and let it all unfold.

Interestingly, in the time between that conversation and this minute, my friend got what she needed from someone else, made some hard choices and now sees her way ahead, at least for a few steps.

What I’ve learned from this is that no matter how much I love and care for someone, no matter how much I want to share what I’ve learned in life, sometimes I just can’t be useful or effective.  That doesn’t mean, however, that my loved one won’t get what they need from someone else.  I’m trying hard to persuade myself this doesn’t make me a failure, but it’s uphill work.  Additionally, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of what I feel is nothing more than injured pride.  As long as I’m confessing, there might be jealousy in there, too.

I’ve also relearned the thing I wanted to teach.  It was clear to me I couldn’t be an effective support to my friend, that I couldn’t make her feel better, that I had nothing to offer that she could use.  However, two cords of wood were sitting in our driveway, so my partner turned on music and we stacked it in the barn.  He and I cleaned out a closet and I got my fall/winter clothes handy.  I was scheduled to work on Labor Day weekend and the day after, so I showed up for work and did my best.  I wrote a few pages of my current book and I wrote this blog.  Today I swim.  It was in the middle of all this that my friend came to me with the beginnings of her own solutions to her own problems.

Maybe my love and concern were only an added pressure for my friend.  Maybe the most helpful thing I did was step back and live my own life.  That, after all, is where my power is.

I just wish it didn’t feel so inadequate.

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