Tag Archives: romance

The Humble Body

The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of the local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 82 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane 25-yard lap pool. The therapy pool is about 92 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.

As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me that I’m paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.

I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.

I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.

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Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.

For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.

There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.

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But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.

I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling that the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?

In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.

The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.

As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.

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As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom that encompasses all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.

I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.

Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.

In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.

Reverence instead of destruction. My daily crime.

Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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

Kissing Frogs

Years ago, during a conversation about men, a girlfriend of mine said, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that observation, and I’ve never forgotten the way it made me smile. Now, it’s all over the Internet, but then we weren’t numbed by such a constant bombardment of memes and phrases.

One does have to kiss a lot of frogs in life. Roommates from hell, jobs we hate, the nether regions of those more powerful than we are, all require a certain amount of kissing. Then there are sticky-faced children kisses; big-hearted sloppy dog kisses; and, my personal favorite, sandpaper cat kisses that remove the top layer of skin from one’s nose.

Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash

The central preoccupation of kissing, of course, is the “romantic” kiss. We quickly learn that some kisses are more romantic than others. A lot of our personal kissing history is hurriedly filed away under the label “What Was I Thinking?” and we try to forget about it.

When I really consider it, I realize we spend much more time kissing frogs than anything else. Someone should write a manual. (Poor little frogs. I’m very fond of them. I wonder if they have metaphors about kissing princes in hopes they turn into frogs. It would only be fair.)

Leaving an old, familiar place and coming to a new one reminds me how many frogs are out there, waiting to be kissed, especially in this season when the night shrills with the insistent songs of a variety of species from tiny peepers the size of a thumbnail to enormous bullfrogs. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to make new friends. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to find someone to cut my hair, a massage therapist, a dentist, a doctor, and a health food store.

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Kissing frogs takes time, and I get discouraged. I’ve never been comfortable socially. I hate trying to make a connection with strangers. I know intellectually that for every ten times I reach out to another, nine times it will be another dead end, but the tenth time something wonderful will happen. Persistence and patience do pay off.

I’ve spent my life with books. I was reading before Kindergarten (thank you, Richard Scarry, Mom and Dad). Our home was always filled with books. I have a library degree and I’ve worked in a public library and an elementary school library. In my old place, I did volunteer work for a used bookstore run by the local Friends of the Library.

I came to Maine with more than 30 boxes of books, and that was after a severe culling. My partner has at least as many books in his own library. This old farmhouse is positively groaning with our combined libraries, and we’re in desperate need of more shelving. I was disappointed to find a less robust library program than I was used to in the nearest town, and no bookstore of any kind. My first year here, I did hear of a used bookstore in a college town about 30 minutes away, and my partner and I agreed we’d go check it out.

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Three and a half years later, I finally made up my mind to stop shillyshallying around and go find that bookstore. I made a date with myself, pulled out maps, informed my partner I was going, dammit!, and we went.

Heaven. Bliss. Home. Shelves and boxes and unstable stacks of books on every surface. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books. Chairs and stepstools and round stools. Old encyclopedias. Children’s books. A huge table covered in a tornado of books.

I headed for the farthest back corner and started working my way forward through nonfiction hardback, plays, poetry, and then fiction.

A long time later, I went in search of the store owner, who was talking with my much more gregarious and extroverted partner in the casual fashion of men getting to know one another. Without preamble, I asked the owner if he had any use for a volunteer experienced in library and bookstore work. We were standing in a room I hadn’t explored yet that looked as though it had been the site of an explosion. Later, I found out that a pipe had burst and flooded the place.

He thought this was a fine idea, and said I could start that minute. He also said he’d pay me in books (I made a valiant effort not to drool in front of him). I didn’t want to start that minute, so I declined, and I could tell he thought I didn’t mean it, not really. I said we’d talk. I went back to browsing, smiling to myself.

A couple hours, a heavy box and $145 later, we emerged, happy and grubby. I’d made a date to return, but the owner didn’t think I really would.

On Monday, as promised, I returned precisely on the dot of 12:15 p.m., the time he requested.

He’d hurriedly emptied several bookcases at the time of the flood, and disassembled shelves to get them out of the way. He’d been working to get the shelves back up and wanted me to load them. I asked if I could wipe down the shelves first. A raised eyebrow and surprised agreement. He found a bucket and a rag and I got to work while he searched among towering piles of heavy boxes for the books that belonged on the shelves. This was the general fiction mass market paperback section. He wanted me to weed out science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery for other sections. He also wanted me to weed out duplicates, choosing the best copy for the shelf.

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So began four glorious hours of squatting, bending, kneeling, sorting and alphabetizing. A bookstore invariably reflects the place it’s in. In Colorado, we had a Colorado section, naturally, featuring Colorado authors and artists. We also had a big Western section featuring Louis L’Amour and other Western writers. In Maine, there’s a Maine section and history and biography focused on the founding of the colonies, mills and seafaring. Also, a lot of political nonfiction.

The fiction is heavy on Richard Russo, Bill Roorbach, Annie Proulx and other Maine writers, as well as, of course, shelves of Stephen King.

I emptied box after box. I filled one of the empty boxes with duplicates and started another. I made leaning piles of mystery, fantasy and science fiction for other sections. Customers came and went, stepping around my boxes, bucket and piles, browsing with the quiet intensity of true booklovers. Robert, the owner, moved boxes around, answered the phone and hummed under his breath. I put aside a few books I wanted to take home.

Four hours passed like a happy dream. I asked if I could come again. He said yes, he’d be delighted. We made a date. He’s still not entirely convinced I’ll be there, but that’s okay. He’ll learn to trust me.

Coming out of the door into the spring afternoon, I was exhausted, my back ached, my hands were filthy and I was absolutely happy. I’ve found a way to volunteer again, to make a contribution doing something I love and believe in. I’ve found a place to belong with people I have something in common with.

I kissed a frog and this time it turned into a prince.

I drove home along the Kennebec River, watching the waterbirds and enjoying the budding trees, pools of blue hyacinths and banks of daffodils. It’s strange, the things that give our lives the greatest meaning. I thought of the frogs in every pool, pond and puddle right now, in every river and stream, singing, peeping, croaking and chuckling. How many women would look at a disordered, slightly down-at-heel used bookstore and see a prince?

I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m happy. I have that excited feeling of anticipation we get when a new door opens. Through books and volunteer work I’ve found dear friends, great jobs, meaning and purpose. Dreams I didn’t know I had have come true.

Not every kiss is a new beginning. Not every frog is a prince. Every book, though, opens onto a world, and a building full of new worlds can’t help but be overflowing with magic, power and possibility. I’m glad I didn’t give up on kissing frogs. Maybe that bookstore has been waiting for me as persistently as I’ve been searching for it.

Kissing frogs. My daily crime.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

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