Tag Archives: story

Mapping the Story

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much living a life resembles writing a story.

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We love our stories, whether they be in the form of songs, film, books (digital or tangible) or spoken language. We love the nonfiction of history and science, memoirs and fiction. Story has anchored me to life since before I learned to read.

During my writing hours I’m engrossed in creating characters and weaving them together. One scene gives rise to another. There must be action and movement. There must be some kind of story logic. Every word must help drive the story forward. Characters need to be believable and recognizable in their behavior and growth. As an audience, we want to see characters change and learn. We want to commiserate with and applaud our favorite characters. We want them to do well.

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As a writer, I don’t have total control or knowledge of my story. I create a rough outline, characters and setting and start writing. If I’ve done well with my characters, the act of writing animates them into becoming collaborators rather than pawns. I’ve learned the characters who remain passive and one-dimensional are weak and need to be reworked. I may have a direction I want my characters to go in, but strong ones frequently refuse to comply with my outline and notes and we wind up sitting glaring at one another with our arms folded, my character looking out from the laptop screen at me at the keyboard. The flow of the writing stops then, until I set aside my rigidity and work with other possibilities.

This is exactly like life. How often have we gone down a blind alley and wound up with our noses against a brick wall but been too stubborn or exhausted or despairing to retrace our steps and choose another direction? How often have we taken a well-worn path of anxiety and wound up in a trackless desert or marsh, floundering, miserable and lost?

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As we journey through the story of our own lives, however, our view is from the bottom of the valley rather than from a high mountain from which we can see the whole thing. We live our stories one moment at a time, losing sight of the beginning and never knowing the end until we reach it. Our lives are filled with things like visits to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, lost car keys, bills, errands, flat tires and dead car batteries, and colds.

But these details, so ubiquitous in what we call “real life” add nothing to a great film or book. They’re not sexy and entertaining. Nobody wants to watch Wonder Woman floss her teeth or cut her toenails. We don’t see our favorite heroes spending hours hunched over their phones, tablets and games.

We can’t tell the sweeping story of our lives while we’re living them. We know when things feel good or bad, but we don’t look beyond that most of the time. We’re more concerned with our discomfort and disappointment than we are with the inherent ebb and flow of life.

We don’t think about what our story requires. We don’t see our most difficult times as turning points essential to our story.

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As a writer, however, I know tension, conflict and obstacles are necessary. They create movement and growth. They create change. They force characters to reveal weaknesses and summon strengths. They teach resiliency and test faith.

What would it be like if we could watch our own lives as though watching the next big superhero movie? What if we could revel in the setting we find ourselves in, even if we decide to escape it and find a new one? What if we chose to feel inspired by the unpredictability of our unfolding lives and heartened by the way obstacles shape us?

What if it was all an essential, beautiful part of our story?

What if . . . ?

My daily crime.

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

Frozen In Place

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

I moved to Maine with a U-Haul packed with things from my old life. I was moving from a small, tight, energy-efficient home where I lived alone to a slouching, leaking farmhouse with a cracked foundation and a peeling roof. I didn’t trust my cherished possessions to the dubious protection of the house or the barn, also dilapidated and leaking.

So I rented a storage unit.

Now it’s four years later and I’ve been reading and thinking about minimalism. Minimalism appeals to me because it creates space and simplicity in our lives. I’m gradually coming to understand that even my most cherished possessions are not that important to my quality of life. In some ways they even block my view and obscure thresholds and openings.

That’s not to say I don’t frequently miss my just-the-right-firmness double mattress and box spring in storage, or my comfy couch and matching chair. I do miss them, but they don’t fit into my life anymore and they don’t fit into the house. Literally. I don’t think we could get my modern overstuffed couch in the old front door.

My bed and furniture, along with a few boxes, have languished in subzero temperatures in the winter, and heat and humidity in the summer, and I’ve faithfully paid the monthly rent all this time.

A couple of weeks ago we had a call from the owners/operators of the storage unit to say there was flooding on the property.

Here in Maine, we have yet to experience a snowstorm this season that wasn’t mixed with freezing rain. What this means is layers of ice have built up on the frozen ground and clogged culverts and drains. As temperatures see-saw between normal below-freezing and subzero and much warmer air that turns falling snow to rain, the rain has nowhere to go.

The storm that caused the problem at the storage unit dumped several inches of snow and then three inches of rain. Cellars and basements that had never flooded before got wet. Intersections and streets flooded in town. It was a mess. At the storage unit, all that water couldn’t drain away from the buildings, so it crept along the ground and washed through them.

When we unlocked the door and pushed it open, we found ice covering the floor of the unit. The floor slopes a little, so the ice thickness varies from half an inch to two inches or possibly more in places I couldn’t see well. Everything on the floor is absolutely frozen solid to the cement.

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For now, there’s nothing much I can do. After the initial look, I went back with a friend for moral support on another day. As I pushed up the overhead door, I had the usual pang of nostalgia and loss at the sight of all those pieces from my old life, unused and abandoned. Added to that is the bitter cold and solid ice locking it all into place as though it will never let go.

The irony is inescapable. I was trying to keep all those things safe from water and fire while I waited for a life they would fit into again. Keeping them safe felt like keeping me safe, or at least parts of me. Memories. History.

It’s all an illusion, though. How safe is any object? Objects get lost, broken or stolen. They get damaged. We have to manage them, care for them, protect them, carry them from place to place.

A couple of inches of ice have forced me to confront my thoughts and feelings about my stuff. Embracing minimalism is all about de-owning and decluttering, but as I go through my possessions in the house I’m in control. I can choose what to discard and what to keep. Now an act of nature has taken away some of my choice.

My cherished bed, for example, is nothing more than a mattress and box springs leaning against the wall in the back of a storage unit that got wet and are now firmly anchored in ice. When I am able to remove them and take them to the dump, all I’ve lost is the objects themselves. I’ll still remember with pleasure my wonderful bed and using all the bedding that goes with it. I’ll still remember my cat with love and gratitude, and treasure the happy hours we spent together on that bed.

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I’ve lost nothing but the necessity to store the bed for the sake of my memories and/or future possibilities. The truth is I have no use for a double bed in the life I’m living right now.

Why do we save things? Why are our lives full of things we wouldn’t buy today for the life we live now? Why do we save things “just in case?” Just in case of what? Does just in case ever come or is it merely a scary or hopeful story we tell ourselves? Do the things around us speak of who we are right now, or of who we once were or who we wish we were? Are we frozen in the past or in our fantasies? 

The poet David Whyte says that most of us are at least three to four years behind our own growth and change. That struck a chord with me. My storage unit is filled with things from a life I left four years ago, a life I couldn’t go back to even if I wanted – and I don’t. I have moved on and out and up. As precious and sweet as some aspects of my old life were, they’re gone.

Except that I’ve been holding on, which has cost money and now created a situation requiring me to cut my losses and clean up. Maybe, if we took the front door off its hinges and even removed the door frame, we could have gotten my couch into the house, replaced the broken-down one we presently use, and been enjoying it all this time.

(Except the TV is always on in the living room. I hate the TV. The couch is mine. It used to be my reading place, but I can’t read in our disaster of a living room with the TV on. I don’t want it here if I can’t ever enjoy it! It’s mine. And the cat will sharpen her claws on it. And what if the house burns down?)

There is no moral to this story, aside from having learned it really is a good idea to put pallets down in a storage unit! It will be some weeks before the ice softens enough to chip off the floor and sweep out or melt. I have gone in and salvaged what I could, discarded some things, assessed some of the damage. Everything will have to come out while I dry the floor. Then I’ll need to discard whatever is ruined, buy and transport pallets and re-pack the unit.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the number of objects I’m carrying through my life. For far less than I’ve already spent on the storage unit we could have tightened up at least two of the outbuildings right here on the property for storage. How badly do I need anything I haven’t used in four years?

I’m inclined to be grateful for the flooding of my unit. It forced me to ask some important and provocative questions. It forced me to consider what’s truly important for my happiness. It challenged me to let go of things that no longer serve me without fear or regret.

When I left Colorado, I told friends that I was coming to Maine because I thought I had a life here waiting for me. It’s taken me some time to find it, but I was right about that. I chose not to remain frozen in place, and that’s still my choice. Perhaps it’s time now to free my things from that old life as well.

Thawing the ice. My daily crime.

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

 

 

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.

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Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.

As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces that are reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.

The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is evident to any investigator, because it has appeared in so many times and places. According to my research, the first time it appeared was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest that actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”

A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns that evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such a pretence is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.

Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.

Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with the sheep.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.

Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.

My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.

As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.

Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.

I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears as though many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.

How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naive and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.

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Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.

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Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.

One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.

Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.

The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They disguise themselves and mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.

In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.

That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.

People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons and look at a screen and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while they drool at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so that no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.

Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll be separating the wolves from the sheep and telling stories.

My daily crime.

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