Tag Archives: stories

Essential Things

It’s the season of Christmas music. Like it or hate it, it seems to be inescapable just now. I’ve never understood why “My Favorite Things” is a Christmas song, but it always seems to be in the holiday music lineup, so the lyrics have been winding their way through my thoughts.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

One of the things I love about life is how multilayered it is, and how, paradoxically, the activities that demand most of our time and energy are not necessarily the things that truly nourish us and make our lives worth living. We can look around us and identify a few of our favorite things on the surface of our lives. Several layers underneath the surface, however, is a different list, a list of what we’re rooted in. The loss of surface things is painful. The loss of what we’re rooted in is terminal.

I’ve come to appreciate the complex layers in life gradually. For a long time I was only aware of my shallow roots, and they were in other people. My possessions, my place and the people around me provided me with a sense of identity and I didn’t see myself as separate from them.

In fact, I didn’t see myself at all.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens certainly enrich my life, but I’m not rooted in them. I don’t draw joy, passion, hope and my desire to engage with life from them.

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So, I’ve been asking myself for the last few days, what are my roots growing in? What lies in the layers beneath my favorite things and my stories, beliefs and identity? What makes life possible and beautiful?

The resulting list, not of favorite things but of essential things, seems very odd to me. It’s so odd and unexpected, in fact, that I’m wildly curious about how other people would answer these questions. Am I the only odd one, or does everyone have a strange little inventory of necessities in their deepest layers of experience? I was also surprised at how hard it was to excavate so deeply, far below my desire for seductive surface things I can buy. Making a wish list is easy. Making an external inventory of the stuff in our lives is also not difficult, though it may take some time. Descending deeply within ourselves, past our relationship to others, past our identity and past the things that fire or flood can take from us to scratch and sniff and burrow among our own roots, tasting the soil and filling ourselves with our own scent, is a journey through the dark without guide or companion into our own soul.

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In that deep, internal place from which I draw faith, peace and love reside a memory and a dream. The memory is of a crippled orange cat who taught me everything I know about unconditional love, survival, surrender, courage and the gift of life. The dream is of my mother, young and carefree, leaping and running joyfully down a grassy hill under a blue sky toward a group of waiting horses, dogs and cats.

My roots must mingle with the roots of other lives, especially the patient trees, and always they reach for water in all its forms, as necessary to me as breathing.

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I cannot imagine living without stories. My childhood was spent in secret gardens, Oz, Narnia and on the river with Mole, Rat and ridiculous Mr. Toad. The greatest loss of things I can imagine is the loss of my library, but the influence and inspiration of all the stories I’ve read, told, written and even forgotten have shaped me in countless ways that can never be lost. I am never tired of watching, listening to and reading about the stories around me, mine, yours and theirs.

Stories are only one aspect of creativity, and creativity is perhaps the strongest support upon which my life rests. The power to make something out of nothing, the power to interpret a piece of life with music, words, dance, fiber, paint or any other material or medium, seems to me the most sacred power there is. The compulsion to make, not for money or fame, but as a love letter to life, animates and inspires me. The work of creativity is the greatest spiritual treasure we can give ourselves, one another and the world.

A dream that all will be well. A memory of a great love. Trees and water, stories and the joy of creation. These are the essential things without which I would not be. A strange assortment that doubtless makes a strangely shaped  soul, but I don’t mind. I know who I am, and I know what I need.

My daily crime.

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

Allowing Possibility

Have you ever had a dream of finding an undiscovered room in a familiar house? I have, several times. I like those dreams. A large piece of furniture moves aside, or I walk into a room I know well and find a new door in it.

Last weekend, my partner and I went to our small local theater and I saw Book Club while he went happily off to Deadpool. (Honestly, I’m so tired of comics, superheroes, space adventures, special effects and unending battles and chases. Whew. It felt good to say that.)

The movie was a relief. I didn’t have to spend most of it with my eyes shut trying to filter out the entirely overstimulating and, at the same time, boring hyperactivity, and it wasn’t excellent. It didn’t require anything from me except to sit back and relax.

No spoilers and this is not a movie review, but Jane Fonda tries way too hard. Instead of marveling at her artificial youthfulness, I felt rather sorry for her. There was also a lot of unnecessary drinking. It didn’t add anything to the story. Some of the humor was more of a wince than a chuckle, but there were some truly funny moments. The writing was a little inconsistent. It’s not really a movie about sex at all, by the way. It’s a movie about connection and being an aging woman.

Overall, though, I could relate to these four women and I found the movie oddly touching in an unexpected way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, in fact, trying to understand why it made me feel so bittersweet.

It has to do with giving up. Well, not really. Not giving up, exactly, but settling. No, that’s not quite right, either.

It has to do with gradually forgetting to entertain possibility.

That’s better.

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We inhabit our lives like a house. It’s a finite space, and we’re intimately familiar with the floorplan, the closets, the windows and the doors. Our house is defined by ourselves and the way we live, and it’s also defined by the external world and people around us. Outside our house is a world where all kinds of potential physical and emotional harm crouches, waiting for us to take a risk and leave our shelter. Outside our house is a wilderness of Unknown.

When we’re young the house of our life is new and exciting. We experiment using the space in different ways. We begin to figure out what we like and don’t like, what works well in our lives and what doesn’t, who we can live with and who we can’t live with. We gradually accumulate furniture in the forms of memories, scar tissue, hand-me-downs, beliefs and new stuff we find all by ourselves.

The years go by and we learn a lot (hopefully) about the way the world works and who we are. We notice an ever-enlarging population of people younger than we are.

Then, one day, we’re in our fifties. Then our sixties. Then our parents are old. Not older. Old. How did that happen? Then our kids are as old as we were when we had them. It’s entirely disconcerting. We begin to think of ourselves as middle-aged and secretly feel older than that a lot of the time. Then, if you’re a woman, comes menopause, which, just as the onset of menstruation changed everything in the beginning of our lives, remodels our house.

For one thing, we need to tear out the heating system and replace it with cooling and fans.

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By this point in my own life, I’ve made a lot of choices and taken notes on how they worked out. I’ve made decisions about what I will and won’t do, and about what I am and am not interested in. I’ve decided what dreams to discard and interests to drop, because I’m out of time, energy or both. I’ve decided I know exactly who I am, what I’m capable of and what I need and want. I have an entirely private (because it’s shameful) list of things I’ve given up on.

Book Club speaks to the ways in which we begin to limit possibility as we age. In my case, it has nothing to do with age, though. I’ve been slamming doors behind me my whole life. When I was 18, I turned my back on high school. When I was 20, I left residential college, never to return. When I was 21 and got married, I gave up on dating or looking for love. When I was 27 and had my first child, I stopped dreaming of freedom and adventure.

And so on.

Of course deciding we’re never going to do something ever again practically guarantees the Gods will throw it back to us sooner or later, giggling. Now when I hear myself say, “Never again…” I can smile.

An even darker aspect of refusing possibility has to do with the dreams and desires we’ve never fulfilled. I’ve always struggled with financial scarcity. I tell myself nearly every day that I’ll never be financially successful, and it doesn’t matter, because I have a good life, I have what I need, I’d rather have my self-respect and integrity than be rich (note the belief that one can’t have both), and it’s not a big deal. I say all those things to myself because I don’t see any possibility of financial security. If I haven’t found it following all the rules and working so hard, then maybe I don’t deserve it, or it’s just not something I can earn or have. I don’t want to live the rest of my life hoping for something that never happens.

The story I tell myself is that I’d love to find a great job where I could contribute my talents, do meaningful work, be part of a team and get adequately paid. I’m always watching and listening for that job. But I know I’m too old, the things I love to do will never pay well, the kind of thing I’m looking for wouldn’t be here in rural Maine, and I’ll struggle to maintain adequate housing and feed myself forever.

If there’s no possibility, I can work on accepting what is and try to be peaceful.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Book Club was redemptive. It reminded me that possibility still exists for me. I’ve done things in the last five years I never imagined doing in my wildest dreams. Why do I think it’s all over now? Why do I make so many iron-clad assumptions about the size and shape of my house? Why am I deliberately trying to ditch my dreams? Why do I think of myself as a food item on the pantry shelf with an expired sell-by date?

Am I too old and jaded to invite miracles? Am I too worn out to move a piece of furniture (a bookcase, what else?) and discover a door behind it I never saw before? I know I’ve yet to discover my highest potential.

Maybe I’m just not very brave. I don’t want to fail anymore. I don’t want to be disappointed or feel I’m a disappointment, ever again. I don’t want to be let down, or hurt, or stood up or rejected. I don’t want to look like a fool. (I don’t mind being a fool, but I don’t want to look like one.) I don’t want to be scared.

I don’t want to play power games with people.

Perhaps this is the crust of old age, this gradual accumulation of weariness, scar tissue, limiting beliefs, and changing physicality that keeps us sitting in our familiar, safe house, where the edges and boundaries are well-defined and unchanging and we control the dangers of possibility.

Some people successfully shut out life, or shut themselves away from it. I’m never (there I go again) going to be able to pull that off, though. I’m too curious and too interested. An overheard remark, a movie, a conversation, a book or even a song lyric invariably comes along and kicks me back into motion when I’m threatening to lock myself permanently in the predictability and safety of my house. Then I begin to write, and then the walls waver and shimmer, new doors and windows appear, a corner of the roof peels away to show me the sky and I remember I’m still alive, still kicking, still wanting and needing and still, in spite of my best efforts, dreaming of possibilities.

My daily crime.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

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

Selchie

Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.

I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.

I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.

I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for my second book, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.

Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.

A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries  the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises that after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.

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It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.

As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.

Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.

I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.

I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.

I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, seeking, fleeing and climbing ladders that we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.

What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expected to be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.

On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.

I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I laid awake at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.

I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.

By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?

The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.

Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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