Ransom Notes

by Jennifer Paros

I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind. 

 --  Antoine de Saint-Exupery 

At twenty-one and recently graduated from college, I was living alone in a studio apartment, frightened of looking for work. Gradually, worry lead to inertia and depression.  In my isolation and fear of making a move, I took to creating collages — which sounds artistic and potentially therapeutic.  But mostly I was cutting out individual letters and gluing them down in the form of somewhat disturbing almost-poems. I don't remember why, however, as I am mainly familiar with kidnappers employing this technique for ransom notes. 

This activity was actually appropriate because, in essence, I was holding myself hostage. I had gotten on such a debilitating jag of painful thinking that action seemed impossible.   I was hypnotized by old ideas about myself — about being weak, afraid, and incapable in the world. I was hoping to be set free by something other than myself, which would reassure me I was good enough.  And I was holding myself hostage until that “proof” arrived.

Unfortunately, I have held myself hostage numerous other times, in various ways, and certainly in regards to my writing.  Although I grant myself freedom to explore what interests me in the first drafts, often the further into the writing process I go, the less free I feel. And the ransom note starts to form:   

I will set myself free if I am guaranteed what I want. 

Here are my demands:

1. That this is great work.

2. That everyone acknowledge it is Great.

3. That I Feel Absolutely Secure about it.

4. That Monetary Success and Praise be mine. 

Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you. 

But the truth is that what I want is to write.  If I write, I’ve got what I want.  The rest is all mental torture.  Who defines what “Great” is? If I like it, it’s “Great” to me; if I don’t, not so great.  Some will like, some will not — that’s always the breakdown.  Feeling secure is an inside job, a choice, a measure of how much we validate our inherent value.  And our greatest influence over Money and Praise lies in doing work we care about, and valuing that work when it is complete.

One day, while cutting out letters and gluing them down, I was aware that my coming-of-age-confusion had turned creepy. I paused and looked out my first-floor window.  Nearby was a bush with large, pink flowers; if I had opened my window I could have touched it.  I wondered how, sitting so near to this beauty, I could feel so jailed.

And then a new thought came.  I could walk to the newspaper vending machine right outside my building.  That's all: get the paper, return to my hole.  Nervously, I took the challenge.  Back inside, I opened to the employment listings.  I was drawn to call about a job and soon left my ransom notes behind. The second I stopped tending the same oppressive thoughts, freedom was mine. 

Pain will leave you, when you let go. 

                                        --  Jeremy Aldana

Years ago, I sat next to an elderly woman on the train eager to tell me her life story. She had grown up impoverished with virtually no toys, yet one day her mother gave her a doll, which she adored.  Soon after, her mother abandoned the family and with her sudden disappearance, the doll disappeared as well. Her father, it turns out, had gotten rid of it with no explanation. She spoke angrily to me about her father taking the doll and her mother leaving her behind.

The old woman paused and looked down at her misshapen hands, which she explained were arthritic, “Awful hands –,” she said. “I hate them!” 

Her words against her hands felt equally painful as those against her parents. The anger was now against herself as well. Though she clearly wanted freedom from the pain, unwittingly she was sitting vigil for this childhood wrong until it was somehow righted.These were the demands; this was her ransom note.  And her full peace and freedom were being denied because of it.

This is the challenge — whether we’re writing and concerned about what will or won’t come of it, afraid of going out in the world, or locked onto something from the past.  No matter how we are holding ourselves hostage, stuck, the Ransom Note is always fictional, the Demands always unreasonable, our Freedom always in our own hands, and the Opportunity always NOW to give ourselves what we most want.


Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.

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