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Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Auntie, Davinder, & the Bagheera

Davinder learns why you should always listen to your Auntie — especially when a panther is on the loose!

“Auntie, Davinder, & the Bagheera” is my reimagining of the traditional Indian folktale, “The Tiger, the Brahman, & the Jackal,” inspired by my year in Mussoorie, in the foothills of the Himalaya. You can see it performed as part of my Brave Girls & Wise Women program or Folktales from Around the World program.

This episode’s story poem is “The Cozy, Dozy Kitten.” The recommended reading is “Just So Stories,” by Rudyard Kipling.

Lake Superior Selkies

Last winter I saw a photo of these two fabulous ladies swimming in Superior… in January. I said, “I need a wetsuit!,” and next thing you know, one showed up at my house!

This was a magical swim– an hour (an hour!!) in the big lake.

We hailed he passengers on the Hjørdis as she sailed into the East Bay.

We swam through a passage between the rocks.

We sat mermaid-like on the reef just beyond Artist’s Point.

It was magical to be at eye-level with the lake, especially on a day when the water was a glassy, platinum blue and the sky reached down like a bowl, as if the edge of the world we’re just Over There and if we were bold enough, we could swim to it, and beyond.

The True Self is 11 Years Old

I’ve been thinking about my 11-year-old self a lot lately.

As I planned my 37th birthday party, as she always does, 11-year-old Rose piped up, “No boys allowed! No way!” (Not even my husband or son get invited— they are expected to lavish me with attention earlier in the day, secure in the knowledge that I will save them each a slice of cake).

When a friend texted, “Hey, my birthday is just a few days after yours— some time we should have a joint party!,” 11-year-old Rose laughed out loud. Besides the fact that I insist on having the party on my actual birthday, I assured my well-intentioned friend that, practical though it may be, 11-year-old Rose would definitely not be willing to share. What day besides your birthday gets to be truly, guiltlessly, indulgently about You?

At the party itself, over peach pie, chocolate mousse, and whiskey, someone said “This is so fun! No one ever has birthday parties anymore.”

Why ever not?

I’m pretty sure I’ve thrown myself a party almost every year since I turned 21, when I reserved a couple lanes at the Bryant Lake Bowl and bought a taco bar— surely not a small expense compared to my rent-to-income ratio at the time— and totally worth it.

And just a month after we’d moved to India with a toddler, when I was still getting used to a new culture, checking my child’s shoes for scorpions, and living at 7,000 feet of elevation, I asked the most extroverted person I’d met to organize a ladies-only dinner party. I felt pretty shy, I had no idea who would come, and I had to borrow cash from a motherly near-stranger before going out for the night because my bank card hadn’t arrived yet. But I was turning 29 and that warranted a celebration.

I know I’ve missed a few here and there, but the standard is: It’s my birthday and I’m having a party. There will be delicious desserts (which I will bake) and probably some lake-lounging time, and all my favorite ladies. (And I can invite more than three people because we don’t all have to fit in my mom’s van!)

 

It’s sort of a surprising thing, more than 25 years later, to see how much of my attention and energy goes toward resolving and/or delighting preteen desires. But it also makes total sense: 11 is the age of the true self, a foot in both worlds.

11 is a big transition time. It was the year before 7th grade for me: the era of intense girlfriend drama, my first boyfriend, and, in our little town, the start of high school with 7-12 all in one building.

At 11 I was not yet a teenager or an adult, but I was no longer a little kid. (Though it took another year of pleading with my Mom, and finally an outright boycott at age 13, I was old enough to stay home by myself after school without a babysitter, and even be responsible for my younger sisters.)

I knew at 11 I wanted to be an actress and a writer; and that’s what I’ve done ever since, for fun and for money. I still stand by my fashion sense from 1993 (one distinctive sweater dress comes to mind, and for my birthday this year I wore an extravagantly beaded and sequined top; I also recently bought a 12 color eyeshadow palette, because, why not?).

11 was a quick window between little kid-hood and the angst of crushes and social hierarchies and adult expectations. It was the beginning of being fabulous, the start of choosing to become the person I am today; 11-year-old Rose is the goal, the true north, the notes all ringing clear and in harmony with each other.

 

I wonder what your 11-year-old self has to say to you. What she loves, fears, longs for. Because the upside of being an adult is that it’s all possible. And the fears aren’t as scary as they used to seem: I’m the kid and the mom— I have kept another human alive for 9 whole years, after all; a really nice, thoughtful, funny, clever human, no less, who can cook really good scrambled eggs! I have only rarely fed him cereal for supper. I have faked bravery and held his hand when he got stitches. I have helped him do what interests him even when it doesn’t interest me (Legos, Snap Circuits, Dungeons & Dragons). Without a doubt, I can do that for my younger self, too.

I don’t need anyone else’s permission or money— though I do wish for a windfall now and then, I have saved up and replaced a house’s worth of windows, I have gotten cars repaired, I have paid rent and mortgages, I have researched how to fix a leaky toilet: I can definitely buy a nyckelharpa / get braces/travel to beautiful places / learn to sew my own clothes / get a stray cat fixed / whatever.

I also don’t have to be a Grown-Up about it all. I don’t have to be a 1950’s clock-in-at-9-cocktail-at-5-wax-my-car-on-weekends sort of creature.

Now that my son is out of the I-have-no-skills-to-stay-alive-on-my-own stage, I get to return to my younger self, I get to be playful, I don’t have to focus on survival— my own, as a kid in a grown-ups’ world, or his.

When we move beyond survival, we can thrive, and it turns out I really like the ideas 11-year-old Rose had. She had no mobility, no money, no autonomy other than in her imagination; now I get to have all the resources of adulthood and her wise instincts and dreams.

I hope you do too— I hope all of us return to those younger, wiser, magical selves and bring all the grown-up skills and resources to not only be safe, but to live in delight.

 

Every year at my party I hand out index cards and instruct the guests to write my fortune for the coming year. No one ever writes “Your stocks will go up,” or “Your bathroom will be spotlessly clean.”

Every prediction, every magic wish is one of which 11-year-old Rose would heartily approve.

sparkly birthday selfie

Mizilca & the Gray Geese

Are you brave enough to follow Mizilca into Baba Yaga’s deep dark forest to rescue her baby brother?

“Mizilca & the Gray Geese” comes from Russia and is part of my Brave Girls & Wise Women program.

This episode’s story poem is “The Maiden, the Devil, & the Dancing Shoes.” The recommended reading is “Dealing with Dragons,” by Patricia C. Wrede.

1: The Sad Tale of the Delicious Pancake

Watch what you say, or your pancake might just run away! This Norwegian folktale is cousin to “The Gingerbread Man.”

This episode’s story poem is “If You Are Lost in a Troll Wood.” The reading recommendation is “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter,” by Astrid Lindgren.

Gardening is Also Digging Rocks

There’s more to gardening than planting flowers.

You can start seeds. You can divide and transplant. But you have to weed, or cover the soil with mulch. And before any of that, you have to work with the dirt you’ve got.

This summer I’ve spent a lot of time clearing wheelbarrow loads of gravel out of two garden beds. (Never will I landscape with gravel and black plastic, never!) I also dug up a pretty massive pile of rocks.

One neighbor shouted across the street, “Rose, what are you doing?”

I shouted back, “I have no idea.” I was making hay while the sun shone, I guess.

 

I’ve wanted to clear out these beds ever since we moved in six years ago. But the task was always daunting and far less inspiring than arranging peonies or transplanting tiger lilies from my grandma’s garden.

And I had bigger problems than gravel: my main beds were choked with snow on the mountain (impossible to get the roots out!) and lily of the valley (with 18 inch root beds!).

So for a few summers I dug out invasive plants. I shook dirt from the roots. I got the best garden tool ever and twisted the soil until the crab grass and the snow on the mountain roots sifted themselves to the surface. I did some plain old boring weeding.

And this year, all threats to my established plants taken care of, I started the season with an early weeding, and could sit back and let the garden just do its thing.

We’re almost to our sixth anniversary of moving in here— the longest Jay and I have lived anywhere since we met each other almost 14 years ago. And there are projects that continue to arise— not as surprises, but, now that more pressing matters are handled, as the next thing on the list.

I’ve been feeling frustrated with my hang ups about book layout and publishing. I’ve been feeling worried about not really knowing what I’m doing, worried about making mistakes in front of people, and mistakes that cost money to dispose of and/or fix.

I’ve been asking myself, how can making books be like making a garden?

It already is. I’m just in the rock-picking stage.

It’s not hopeless. This won’t go on forever. I know there’s good soil under it all. I just have to stick with it. Keep putting on my gloves and picking up my shovel. It can be tricky, since my flower gardens are in sight all the time— my progress is visible, whereas working in In Design or sitting on hold with Ingram are not.

Maybe I should make a map of my “book garden”— shade the areas that have been cleared, note the skills that have been learned. And maybe I need to cut myself a vase of flowers to put on my desk while I work.

Honeybee Magic

I’ve never liked “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” I hated that the fable was pro-hard-working, no-time-for-fun-or-art ant. I identified with the grasshopper, and it was pretty scary to see that not only did no one delight in (or even appreciate) his music in summer, no one wanted to take him in or give him food in winter. It seemed to me like the two options were: work hard and be safe, or do what you love and perish. (I have been known to be dramatic now and then).

I’ve been working in my flower gardens a lot this summer— some latent Gerdin gene has kicked in and I’m channeling my grandma. My husband said he really appreciates it, that it makes it nicer to live here. I told him I think I contribute the most in the “Thriving” category, and he’s really good at the “Surviving” category— and we’ve been in the latter for a long time.

Doesn’t anything bridge that enormous gap, the apparent chasm between Surviving and Thriving?

Yes. Honeybees.

Honeybees have the satisfaction of work— of taking something in and making something new that is not only nourishing but sweet and good. Honey is medicinal. It literally never goes bad— you could eat honey from a pharaoh’s tomb (if you weren’t worried about possible curses) or from a Viking cellar.

Honey is specific to plant and place: Tanzanian honey tastes different from Minnesota clover honey. It helps with allergies. It’s antiseptic. It can be made into mead.

And unlike ants who, to my eye, work at a frenzied, militant pace, honey bees dance to tell their hive where the good flowers are. They stitch a thread of connection from blossom to blossom over acres, over miles. If you could trace the line of their movement it would be, I imagine, a visual poem.

And they aren’t storing up fuel for decay, like ants; they are stuffing their furry, golden bodies into flowers, into the very center of colorful, feminine, temporal, perfumed chambers. The magic, the pollen, clings to them— they don’t cling to it, they don’t hoard it. And when they make honey— it’s just regurgitation. They are vessels, they transform nectar without doing anything particularly special or difficult.

What also appeals to me is that if one honeybee fails— if one is somehow flawed and simply can’t do its job for a day or a week or its whole life… well, it’s one of many. It is impossible for the failings of one bee to kill the world’s flowers, fruits, vegetables. It is impossible for just one bee to save them all, either. There’s no pressure, no blame, and no credit. But there is beauty. There is sweetness.

When I was very young, my parents kept bees. I can still remember my dad in the dust-colored suit, netting protecting his face as he moved slowly among the hives with his tiny bellows of soporific smoke: a sweet and comforting smell.

I like that the bees aren’t killed or driven out or even alarmed in order to harvest the honey— they are made drowsy and dozy. They sleep. Maybe they dream. Then they get back out there, following sweetness, and do what they do best.

We found a 5 gallon bucket of honey stored in the root cellar some years after my parents divorced. It was crystallized and thick, a deep golden amber. We scooped it out and heated it slowly. And it was still good.

Compliments Are Not the Goal

Compliments aren’t the goal. They aren’t even proof that something good happened. Compliments just show the audience’s awareness of what happened.

When I perform, I know when connection happens; even on an off day, I can feel it. If I get too attached to or interested in someone else’s praise after a show, it’s easy to think that praise is the goal, the point.

But praise is a mirror: I saw it too!

The point, the connection in the moment— that happened whether anyone gave a standing ovation or not. Compliments might say more about a culture than about a performance.

That said, everyone needs mirrors. (Mirrors and Models). Just be aware of who you are using as your mirrors. Other artists with a facility for your art form? A mixed age audience? Your favorite audience? Pay attention to the variety of mirrors, and of whose feedback is most helpful at different stages of the process.

Story Starter Grab Bag

If you’re stuck on a story, or just want to mix things up, try making a Story Starter Grab Bag.

You can be a Plotter or a Pantser (or something in between)– be as structured or as loose as you’d like, but set yourself a timer of 3 minutes for each of the following lists, and write down as many things as you can think of:

Characters

Places

What happens

Themes/What the story is about

Postive moments

Negative moments

Images you can picture vividly

Now cut up the lists and mix the slips up in a pile (you can make a separate pile for each list, or mix all of them together).
Then set a timer for 10, 20, or 30 minutes, draw three slips, and write. You’ll discover connections you hadn’t noticed, and see your story from new perspectives– and you just might solve some plot problems or writer’s block.

 

Austin Kleon writes about “A Bag of Words” in his blog post (referencing Linda Barry and Ray Bradbury). When I lead the Grand Marais Writers’ Guild each month, we always start with a free-association word list based on an image, choose from the list, and use those words in a couple writing exercises. I liked the idea of a Bag rather than a list– it reminds me of the party game, Popcorn, that’s sort of a cross between Charades and Twenty Questions. And I like the randomness of drawing slips of paper, like drawing cards from a fortune teller: I like trusting my subconscious or some other unseeable force to point me in the right direction (and you can’t be blocked about what words to choose when you don’t get to choose them).

For longer writing projects, like novels, things can get stuck in a rut: write chronologically, figure out the problem in Act 2 before moving on to Act 3, is this a single novel or a trilogy?, etc. Using slips and words/phrases brings us back to seeing the story; when you can see it, you just have to write down what’s in front of you.