Princess and the Pea ~ A Writer’s Take on Being an HSP

If there’s one thing I can’t live without, it’s earplugs.

            Everyone knows the story of The Princess and the Pea, right? A prince searches the land for a princess to marry, and to make sure the candidates are the real deal he makes them sleep on top of a stack of 30 mattresses underneath which he has placed a single pea. If she sleeps fine, she’s not a real princess, but if she tosses and turns all night because the pea disturbs her, hurrah! She’s real! And he will marry her right away.

            If you think about it, why would the prince want to marry someone that easily disturbed? If she can’t sleep on a pea, how’s she ever going to be able to sleep with him? But those are the rules. Marry at your socioeconomic level or the power structures will collapse, and we can’t have that.

            There’s another meaning in this story though. Of all the fairy tales, this is the one with a secret message for a certain small subset of people, the neurologically “highly sensitive person” (HSP). According to some who study this subsetinevitably individuals who belong to it, desperate to understand themselvesabout 10 percent of the population is highly sensitive, while the other approximate 90 percent are not. There’s not much in between the two groups, they say, neurological sensitivity is not evenly distributed on a spectrum, so what’s left is a gulf of misunderstanding. Regular people totally don’t get the HSP, and vice versa. What happens though is that the regular people, because of their sheer majority, always win. The culture is designed for the majority, and if that makes you suffer, you’re told you are weak, defective, and a loser.


            If you are a highly sensitive person, you know what I’m talking about. The world is full of peas of every sensory, energetic and emotional kind. For a regular person, imagine someone stuck a pea in your eye. You’d suddenly be in a very compromised situation. So just imagine your whole body was covered with eyes, and the whole world was full of flying peas. Gross, I know, but it illustrates a point.

            Just like the princess, a pea can ruin your night. Ruin enough nights and there goes your life. That’s why, among some other things, I prize earplugs so highly. HSPs are bothered by things the rest of the population doesn’t even notice, so if part of the message to the HSP ends up being that you’re a loser, the other part is that you’re crazy. Put enough peas in your eyes and you will certainly feel crazy. But wait, before going off the deep end, realize that this fairy tale is for you. The secret message is that you are not crazy and/or a loser: what you are is special.

            As with all neurological subsets, an HSP comes with particular gifts. We tend to be extra perceptive, good at empathy, attuned to the inner world, and very creativemaybe because we have to find stuff to do while we’re busy hiding away from the rest of world. There’s a lot of overlap between HSPs and introverts, but don’t get the two confused, introverts are a much larger group. Possibly all HSPs are introverts, but not all introverts are HSPs.

       So look, we’re special. We might be hard to live with, but isn’t everyone? The important thing is that we take care of our needs in appropriate ways. Years ago I heard an interview on This American Life with the beloved Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mr. Rogers. In a discussion about noise and neighbors, Mr. Rogers recounted how once, in a hotel with loud traffic outside, he slept in the closet. That’s an HSP brother right there, and that was a smart, innovative solution to the problem. It’s also a compassionate thing to be out about in a public forum, because it supports other people when they have to do that kind of thing. And it’s also funny. Let’s all have a good laugh at the ridiculous things we have to do to get by.

            HSP or not, I’m guessing we all have some weird needs. For all our commonalities and differences, neurologically speaking every person is a subset of one. That’s how diverse we are. It’s mind-boggling and mysterious. Maybe we can just celebrate that.

Jenny Jaeckel (bio) is the author of four books, including the forthcoming House of Rougeaux, a highly anticipated historical and literary novel for 2018.

Foreword Reviews says, “Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that in spite of the inescapable presence of slavery and prejudice, it isn’t really about either of these things. Jenny Jaeckel’s House of Rougeaux is about people–varied and fully realized individuals who make the flawed world their own.

Available for preorder now.

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Accidental Citizen

For my family and I, I will always be grateful to the country of Canada, because in every sense of the word it saved our lives. Canada as a nation has a long history of colonialism and genocide just like the US, we won’t gloss over that, but like any place there’s a lot more to the country than just its dark side.

In 2003, Chris and I were living in Northampton, Massachusetts when he decided to apply to a fine arts graduate program in Vancouver. When he got in, we went, stopping off on the way in California to get married. We planned to stay in Vancouver for the two-year duration and then return to Northampton. If we were lucky, while in Vancouver we’d have a baby. That would be a bonus. The kid could be a dual citizen, and the provincial medical system would actually pay for a midwife –crazy!

As it turned out, I did get pregnant and we did have a baby halfway through our second year in Vancouver, but nothing else went as planned. Far beyond paying for the midwife, the medical system paid for five days in the hospital for me, five eventful months in the NICU for Asa, and a whole lot more beyond that. It’s pretty unfathomable to me, and at a loss for anything better, I’m just supremely grateful.

Once we knew we were in deep (long-term medical) trouble, Chris and I extended our visas and eventually applied for permanent residence. Asa was almost three when we were granted that status, and it was an incredible relief. There was no such thing as Obamacare yet and if we’d had to return to the US with a child with high-level pre-existing medical needs we would have been in real jeopardy.

That was a great day. We drove to the border where an agent could issue the next set of papers, and we signed on the dotted lines.

“So this is just for you guys,” the border agent said, looking from us to Asa. “The kid is already ours.”

The border agent then welcomed us to Canada as permanent residents and we celebrated by going home and going to bed. Our future, and whether or not we would return to the US was all up in the air, and dependent on how Asa’s medical issues developed, as in, if they resolved or continued. Luckily for us those issues did resolve, but it took about eight more years, and by then we were well established in our life in Canada, with no plans to return to the US other than for visits.

Up until recently, neither Chris nor I gave much thought to applying for Canadian citizenship. Becoming permanent residents was a monstrous exercise in paperwork, and expensive, and we didn’t have a whole lot to gain from citizenship, it seemed, besides the right to vote. Then came the 2016 US presidential election, and we were just as blind-sided as everyone else who didn’t see it coming. Two days later, still in a state of shock and horror, I decided the time had come to apply. Neither Chris nor I supposed such anti-immigrant fervor would affect Canadian politics, but after the unthinkable happened it made anything seem possible. We were essentially green card holders, and I suddenly wanted more protection than that.

Going from permanent resident to citizen, I learned, was far easier than going from visitor to permanent resident. In two weeks I had the application together, sent it off, and started studying for the citizenship test. My short-term memory these days is like old Velcro, I knew I would need to study the factoids of Canadian history, government, geography, etc. about a thousand times each to get them to stick. Sooner than we expected, five months later, we got the call to appear to present our documents, and take the test. We passed.

I wondered if becoming Canadian citizens would do something to my identity. Being an American expat in Canada is a far more subtle way to be an expat than many other mixes, but the differences definitely exist. Here in British Columbia I’ve often felt like a yodeling, swearing cowboy crashing an English garden party. After screeching, “Howdy Pardners!” I’ve looked down at my dusty, sweaty chaps and felt very out of place. Being Jewish and American can make you friendly and/or outspoken in ways that can really get you in trouble around here.

The last in our series of visas we had before the permanent residence status came through was a student visa for me, and to get that I enrolled in a several-month-long certification program in interpreting at Vancouver Community College. Of the approximately 30 students, and several instructors, just about everyone was an immigrant or first-generation Canadian. The only exception were two mouthy, middle-aged Québécoises. As far as I can tell, Francophone people are say-what’s-on-your-mind people. My kind of people. All in all, our group of language-geeks represented seven languages other than English. That was a really good party. I felt very at home.

In general, I, and by extension my family, have tended to connect most with other “others”–Jews, immigrants from the US and elsewhere, first-generation Canadians and queer folks. Nothing has ever made me feel more culturally American–as in how being American has shaped me personally–than being outside of my own country, in Canada or elsewhere. Still, after 14 years here, a lot of Canadian stuff has seeped in. Having grown up in hippie Northern California, I don’t think I know much about being patriotic. I don’t know what allegiance means when you’re at odds with the policies of your government. Politically there’s a lot to be at odds with here in Canada, just like in the US, as I mentioned before. At the same time, it’s incredibly humbling to be allowed to live here. Canada owed us nothing, yet it opened its doors and gave us a safe place to live. That’s no small thing. And in this era, when millions in the world are refugees, it’s one of the biggest privileges there is.

Last week, on January 31st, 2018, Chris and I sat in an auditorium, on Songhees and Esquimalt land (downtown Victoria), with 126 other new Canadians, representing 30 different countries. We sat before a stage of local dignitaries, including two fully uniformed Mounties, and took the Oath of Citizenship in English and in French, sang the anthem, and were welcomed with thoughtful words on what it means to be an engaged citizen. Row by row we lined up to walk across the stage, shake hands (the kids got high fives) and receive our certificates of citizenship. Then, after the conclusion of the ceremony, the auditorium and lobby turned into a massive photo shoot.

It was part birth, part graduation, part marriage and part induction, and the feelings I took with me to bed that night lay in my heart like notes of music with sharp edges. In our time of crisis, my family was taken in by strangers, and after all these years, and surrounded by friends, this is our home. Now Chris and Asa and I share all our nationalities: Americans still, but Canadians too, eh? And most grateful for it.

The Book of Embraces

The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says in The Book of Embraces, that he walked out of his native Montevideo because he didn’t “like being a prisoner,” and that three years later, he left Buenos Aires because he didn’t “like being dead.” In this way, in the early and mid-1970s, he escaped two military dictatorships, the Uruguayan and the Argentine, and went into exile in Spain, with his wife Helena. Many of his friends were not so lucky.

Eleven years later, in 1984, after the bloody dictatorship in Argentina had ended, and the one in Uruguay was on its way out, he returned to visit Buenos Aires. He writes:

And so I walked for a while, aching with forgotten memories, searching for places and people I didn’t find, or know how to find, and finally I crossed the river, the river-sea, and entered Uruguay… Montevideo, boring and beloved, smelling of bread in the summer and smoke in the winter. And I knew I had been longing for home, and that the hour for ending my exile had struck.

Exile, and the end of exile, on many levels, is a central theme in The Book of Embraces, a work composed of intimate vignettes from the life of the author and the lives of many people whose stories he renders with the equal intimacy and awe. The stories may be equal parts beautiful and painful, illuminating moments that are ordinary or magical, violent or tender, humorous or tragic, but woven together so that none of the qualities can be separated from the others. It is exile, and the end of exile, and when you read a book like this it leaves you naked, so that you are defenseless before all of it, and so that you laugh at your own image.

Many years ago, in the early 1990s in California, I heard Eduardo Galeano read from this book, and speak to its title, saying that embraces were what he wished to create, when writing these stories, because, “we are so alone.”

The audience, one or two hundred people, fell under his spell, dead silent at times, bursting into laughter at others. When the reading was over a mob of people surrounded him, asking for him to sign their books, wanting to say to him how much his writing had meant to them. He greeted each person like a dear friend, and when the mob had dissolved, I, who had hung back until the end, could see he was exhausted. At the risk of bothering him further, I approached him and said I just wanted to say thanks. I think I said it sadly. I was in my early twenties, still a kid, and a person who had never experienced anything remotely like he had, but maybe, like all people since the expulsion from Eden, I knew something in my heart about exile. Eduardo, tired though he was, gently grabbed my head, as Uruguayans do, looked me in the eyes and planted a fatherly kiss on my cheek.

Eduardo Galeano left us two years ago, at the age of 74, but leaves behind a magnificent body of work. Every time I read The Book of Embraces, which I do every several years, I have the feeling that this great writer, through his words and stories, gently grabs my head, looks me in the eyes, kisses my cheek, and leaves me naked, with my petty defenses burning in a heap, with a fire that keeps me warm.


Jenny Jaeckel’s forthcoming book House of Rougeaux is coming out April 24th, 2018. Here’s what readers are saying:

I love a good family saga, and this is an excellent example of a well-written one. -LibraryThing

Love, love, love it! -Goodreads

At times the book is sad and heartbreaking and at other times inspiring and triumphant. -Goodreads