Digital Detox: Challenge Mode- Pandemic (Rescuing the Muse)

The storm rolled in days ago; the missiles of rain stung my skin as they slashed through the air, forcing me deeper into the spindly foliage of my tiny island. I found sanctuary in a small cave; the only one on this godforsaken splash of land. I sat and waited, staring out as one gray and stormy day slid into blackened night over and over until I lost track of time. I tried to wait it out, biding my time and making plans to rebuild my little vessel and set sail the moment the storm eased. But it never did. I sat shivering in my cave, thinking of my lost Muse, staring at blank walls and listening to the incessant howling of the wind, the pounding of the rain against the rocks, the angry roiling ocean waves assaulting the sandy shores below my camp.

The gods must have noticed my previous bids for escape, vowing to leave me marooned on this island, they sent the forces of nature out to stop me. What do I do now? Will the rain only stop when my will has died, when every ounce of hope has been drained from my veins? How will I ever rescue my beautiful Muse if I can’t ever leave these shores?

The decision was made in the dead of night, as I huddled closer to my dwindling attempt at a fire. I would have to brave the storm, set sail anyway- if I died in the sea, then at least I died fighting, not wasting away on this spit of land I had grown to hate. I set out when the sky was beginning to turn a murky gray. I pulled the remnants of my broken craft from it’s hidden place near the shore. It didn’t take long for me to repair what I could; she was still brutally damaged, but there was nothing else I could do to fix her. So before I lost my nerve, I charged out into the raging sea, screaming my war cry at the gods above and the monsters below. There was a desperation to my actions, a fire burning inside that even the sea could not drown. This was the time- I could feel it in my bones, I would make it to the distant shore or I would be lost to Davey Jones forever. 

Every good storyteller knows that you must test your characters to force them to grow. Nothing is ever simple in life or in books; something that appears straightforward will often carry hidden challenges that must be overcome. Well, my friends, we have managed to hit expert-level challenge on the digital detox.

I had planned a multi-week challenge, complete with updates and tips that helped me manage through the weeks. Everything was going fine, and then life threw another curveball. A pandemic might not seem like the best time to disconnect from your tech, but there is some merit to focusing on how you use the tiny toolbox you carry around in your pocket.

I will admit- I slipped down the rabbit hole; when I wasn’t busy working I was staring at my tiny screen. I was reading news reports, jumping for my phone with every single alert, scrolling through facebook until I lost track of time. I was exhausted, running on empty, and my nerves were shot. But it felt important to stay on top of the constant changes. Truthfully, in my work it was vital to know what was happening in my community and outside of it. Our orders and procedures changed by the hour, and keeping a constant pulse was the only thing that kept me on top of my work.

But now that intensity is lifting, at least for me. My workplace has dropped our operation levels so low that the gush of necessary updates has dwindled down to a trickling flow. While following the news is still incredibly important, we are reaching that new level of normal that will sustain us through the crisis. For the most part, we know what to do: stay inside, minimize contact, do our part individually to protect the collective. It is frustrating in the sense that the best action to take is inaction. It goes against our nature, and leaves us a bit unsettled.

And here is where the Mission to Save the Muse will come back into play. When the world becomes dark and overwhelming, we run to the arts for comfort. We binge watch shows, explore virtual museums, read books- this is a fundamentally human experience. Since the beginning of humanity we have connected through stories; that’s what all of the arts are- a variety of mediums that tell us tales. It has brought us together since the first caveman painted on a stone wall, ever since bands of travelers gathered around roaring fires underneath stars that lit up the sky.

The usual rules of a Digital Detox might not apply now. You might not feel comfortable turning off your notifications, and you might not be able to put your phone away during work times. When the world closed we had to find creative ways to stay connected and stay sane. This is the beauty of technology- allowing us to reinvent the world around us. The key, however, is making sure you wield this power for good, not evil- the keep yourself sane during these times it is crucial to find a balance that will keep you connected, but not wear you down.

My original challenges for the detox looked a bit like this; I pulled together a list of the things that were important to me and added a new component every couple of days to increase the challenge:

  • Turn of Notifications
  • Clean out your apps
    • delete ones that aren’t helpful to you (yes, even that one game you can’t live without)
    • Clean up your social media- get rid of things that are mentally harmful, add more positivity (follow more things that inspire you, that teach you something, that make you feel better inside)
    • log out of apps you have trouble with but don’t want to delete: tell your device to delete your login info so that you have to actually type it out each time you want to log in- makes you pause before doing it
  • Clean out emails: unsubscribe
  • Designate tech free hours (out of sight, out of mind- don’t even bring your phone)
    • During work time
    • During dinner- sit down and talk instead
  • Designate tech-free spaces
    • No phone in the bedroom (get a real alarm clock to avoid temptation)
  • Go out into the world and notice things (focus in on all of those times you would normally reach for your phone while waiting for someone, standing in line, sitting in a waiting room or on a park bench- instead, just watch people, notice the world around you)
  • Write longhand instead of typing
  • Put phone in airplane mode while trying to work to limit distractions
  • Limit any multi-tasking
    • finish one thing at a time, even when interrupted (if possible)
    • turn off the audiobook/music while driving/doing mindless tasks, let your mind wander instead
  • Use some apps that might help you cut back if you are struggling
    • Forest: you set a time limit where you don’t want to touch your phone (ex: while working on a project)- it will ‘grow trees’ for all of the time you follow your goal, but the trees start dying if you unlock the phone. Real trees are planted for your progress
    • Usage trackers: many of them have features that track time spent in each app- if there is one you want to keep, but limit (ex: a game you like to play) set a timer on it for your daily cap
  • Start filling the empty space with new creative endeavors/focus on mindfulness

The current state of the world changes the game plan, but it doesn’t smother the goal entirely. The new focus: the type of tech being used and how it is impacting you. Things that may have been on the list of goals previously might not be workable in our new work-around-world. For me personally, I can’t put my phone in airplane mode or leave it in a drawer at my desk while I’m working. I need to be reachable now more than ever (primarily because of work). I don’t want to turn off all notifications because I do want to hear some breaking news and find out when my State Governor is going to make another announcement. I don’t want to delete my facebook app because that’s the fastest way to check in on friends and family. I can’t sit on a park bench and watch people because it’s important to limit exposure. This week while I enter the mostly-working-from-home world, I know I will want to video chat with my friends on a Friday night and text with coworkers about how we are all coping and what we are doing to manage caseloads- it’s important to keep these options open. In a world that has necessitated a cutting off of in-person connections, we will depend more on these little gadgets to feel like we are still a part of this world.

So it’s time for a new plan, one that might actually be more sustainable going into the future. It’s going to depend more on checking in with yourself, gauging your inner temperature, so to speak, being in tune with your stress levels and personal needs to help navigate what you want to keep and what you are willing to lose. A lot of it will be about whittling down the myriad of distractions into the few key pieces you want to hold on to. For example, instead of having a dozen different news apps- whittle it down to your two favorites- one local, one national/international. Be strict and mute notifications that aren’t necessary-  now more than ever it is important to protect your mental health; as you go through your tech, think of it in terms of what you will allow to have power within your mental space. Don’t give the power of intrusion to anything that isn’t going to serve you in some way- mute those apps that you don’t want to delete and set limits on them.

The main thing that will guarantee success: replacing things that are distracting or stressful with things that bring joy and creative energy. Give yourself permission to ‘check-out’ when you need to. For those working from home, I know it is difficult keeping a separation between work like and home life because it’s all in one little space. It is difficult to decompress like you normally would on your commute back home- try to find a new way to transition; perhaps it could be a couple of minutes of meditation, hide away your working tools in a corner of the room, take a short walk around the block or to your mailbox. Create a habit that will help clear the clutter of your mental space and free you up for your precious personal hours. And then there are those who have suddenly found themselves out of work; the stress of the unknown, trying to figure out how to pay bills- it’s all consuming and terrifying. But for your own sake, it is still important to find time for yourself, to cultivate your own creativity and keep yourself healthy- mentally and physically. The last thing on your mind is creative expression, but I promise- it will help. And who knows, it could turn into an avenue for unconventional income. People are craving connection, people are in the exact same boat and want to feel less alone. Even if your art (in any form) is taking a darker turn right now with all of this uncertainty and fear- harness it. There is power in showing your truth, in sharing that with the world.

So today, I will take the time to take care of myself. I will reinvent my new detox: clean out the apps, set timers for the remaining ones, mute notifications, clean out my emails. I will leave my phone in the other room while I cook dinner tonight. I will turn off the audiobooks I’m barely paying attention to while I clean, and let my mind wander- I will let myself process the stress of the current situation and play out the stories percolating in the back of my mind. I will pick an hour to turn off my phone and create. I will pick up a pen and paper and journal by hand, even if it’s only for ten minutes. I will give my brain a break from the constant bombarding distractions and stress and just let it wander as it wishes. And then tomorrow, I will keep attempting to navigate this new normal. I will learn to start prioritizing myself and the things that make me happy again. I will set off in search of the Muse, and use these difficult times to truly find her.

I don’t know how I made it past those first few raging waves; it was as if the gods themselves were shocked at my daring. Perhaps they assumed they had won and simply stopped watching me. I made it past the cresting waves and out to the open sea. The rain still lashed at my skin, it was nearly impossible to see; but it didn’t matter anymore. I needed off that accursed island, whatever the cost. 

I didn’t notice at first- I assumed the sudden waves pounding against my vessel were simply the ocean venting her anger once again. It wasn’t until I felt the sting of flesh brush past me that I realized what was happened- the monster that plagued my dreams all of these nights was back. Large tentacles rose in the air and slapped at the water near my boat- sending waves that nearly dislodged my tenuous hold. She had still managed to find me in this storm. The sky crackled with lighting, the booming thunder filled my ears and left them ringing as the underwater monstrosity continued her assault. I grabbed my puny paddle and dipped it into the water, praying it would help spin me in a new direction. Another dark shape arose from the water and cracked against the edge of tiny ship. I saw the shards of wood split and waited to be plunged into the ocean again- just like last time. 

The broken vessel continued to bob helplessly in the roiling sea. I reached for one of the broken boards, ripping to free and holding it aloft. It had broken off to a sharpened point- large splinters pointing dangerously in different directions from the force used to rip it apart. I clutched it tightly between my knees as I took the dangling remains of rope and lashed myself to the remainder of my vessel. If it sunk, it wouldn’t matter if it dragged me down- there would be nothing else to save me out here. Not this time. I secured the knot with frozen fingers and held my makeshift spear out, squinting through the rain. I screamed into the air, daring her to come and finish her attack. 

I didn’t see the tentacle to my right until it crashed into the side of my vessel, pulling me under. I sunk for a moment before the rope around my waist began to pull, buoying me back to the surface. I was able to take one deep breath before I saw the flash of flesh above me, striking me below the surface once again. I stabbed blindly with my little spear, feeling resistance as I hit something- was it the creature?

There was a thrashing in the waters around me. I pried my eyes open and saw the looming shape dancing beside me, a black inky substance coloring the water around one long tentacle. It reached for me- perhaps in anger. I held my stick in front of me like a lance and waited. Another push and shudder in the water told me I had hit the mark again. The hulking body of the beast lurched towards me as the rope tied around my waist pulled me first left then right- had it grabbed ahold? A shot of panic raced through my body- it was going to drown me. I shoved my sticked towards the body of creature and stabbed- over and over I tried to make contact, the water turning inky black around me. I couldn’t tell if I was even hitting anything anymore.

I was running out of breath, the creature was going to win once again. I pictured my Muse as the darkness closed around my eyes, my arms still wielding the weapon weakly. Then suddenly the movement stopped, the slick tentacles untangled from my craft and I felt the gentle tug of the rope around my belly.

The air was cold as it hit my face, I gulped deeply, sucking in rain and coughing as I tried to breath life back into my sore body. The storm had not abated- but there were no more looming tentacles- the monster had left me, it seemed, gone back to it’s underwater lair, possibly expecting the storm to finish the work it had started. I barely had the energy to cling to the two pieces of wood still lashed together- the remainder of the ship that had saved my life. I held on as best I could and let the ocean take me where it wished. I closed my eyes and waited for my fate to take me. I didn’t even have the energy to open them again when I felt the resistance of sand beneath my feet. Truthfully, I was afraid to open them- what if the waters and lulled me back to my little island? I couldn’t bare the thought.

“Over there,” a voice shouted in the distance. Arms roughly pulled me out of the surf, “She’s alive, help me get this rope off,” I could hear shouts and rustlings around me. My eyes remained shut, but I could feel the faint flicker of a smile on my lips- I had made. I don’t know where I landed, but I had made it through the Sea of Distraction. With that final thought, I let unconsciousness take me.

 

 

Monsters in the Sea of Distraction (Rescuing the Muse)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have attempted to cast my tiny vessel out into the Seas of Distraction, to traverse their waters and find myself triumphantly on the other side, one step closer to my Muse locked away in her dragon guarded castle. Every day I tighten the ropes that hold my little raft together and push her out into the unrelenting waves. Each time I set out the sky is a bright and cloudless blue. By the time I make it fifty feet away from my isolated shores, they have darkened. Gray clouds heavy with rain roll in from the horizon, bleed across the sky as the wind rallies it forward. Each time I cling to my little raft as the waves pummel me to the wooden deck, intent on knocking me down like set of bowling pins. 

I can feel a stirring in the waters around me, a shadow moving beneath the frothing surface of the sea. I cling tighter to my vessel, squinting through the salty spray flying back at me from the bottomless abyss. I am afraid to look, hoping and praying that the movement I catch out of the corner of my eye is just a trick the water is playing on me. But no, I have spotted this beast from the safety of my shores, turned my head away time and again when the serpent of the sea railed against the Earth. The shadow circles slowly, not quite touching my vessel, but I know it is only a matter of time. I know she is waiting, sizing me up; the mouse that has come out of its hole to play.

The slap of flesh against water electrifies the air behind me. I whip my head around and just make out the tip of a tentacle slipping back below the waves. She is toying with me now, waiting to see how I will react. But there is nothing I can do from here. She is too large and I carry no weapons. So I do all I can; I cling to my raft and pray she gets bored. 

Another slap echoes to the left of me. I close my eyes and refuse to look. Why watch my own destruction when I am utterly helpless to change anything? The raft jars as the next slash hits closer to home. A hefty jab pushes my sorry excuse for a boat high in the air, and suddenly I’m flying through the salty sea spray before plummeting back to the frigid waters below. The waves wash over me, flooding into my lungs, tearing me from the little wooden deck that is my only salvation. I find myself sinking into the sea, unsure of which way is up and which is down. I kick and thrash, desperately searching for the sanctuary that is the open air. But I can’t find it before everything goes dark.

I awake with fresh air in my lungs and an expanse of twinkling little lights speckled across an expansive blackened sky. Not even the slightest breeze is ruffling my clothes, which are stuck to my body, crusty with sand and dried salt. The storm has once again passed. I know without even inspecting my surroundings that I am back on my island. Driftwood settles on the beach beside me, carried in on a lazy tide. The remnants of my tiny ship, my only companion in this desolate place. Tomorrow I will collect the pieces, lash them together, and try once again. Perhaps I will only get through one wave, perhaps I will finally make it to that distant shore. But for tonight, I will lay back in turn my face to the stars. I have not given up, no, not yet. 

The funny thing about a bad habit: it doesn’t want to let you go. My Digital Detox: well, let’s just say that I have fallen off my raft a couple of times in the attempt. It’s harder than you think to release a lifeline when you are afraid of drowning. I thought that this journey would be a simple one: declutter my mind by simplifying my life, rekindle the spark of inspiration with all that fresh space. I thought a week away from Shop Titans and Facebook would give me the clarity that I needed to focus on my goals. And yet, what I learned: the distractions are merely a symptom of what is truly wrong. To cross the Sea of Distraction you have to understand why you decided to swim to that little island to begin with. And this, my friend, is the most terrifying monster of all.

It is never an easy task to look within yourself and search for your own monster; that little gremlin within you that’s constantly fighting your every push towards success. I buried myself in distraction to keep my brain from turning to the one thing that could cripple it. I left my mind intentionally shallow because I was terrified of how deep my waters could go if I allowing myself to truly explore their depths. It can be a dark place at times, diving into the heart of your own soul.

I used to be laser focused, I could do it all: work full time while taking a full load of college courses, walking the dog every night and maintaining my relationships while still keeping up on my TBR pile. I could finish a first draft of an entire novel in less than a month and still have some energy leftover to edit. I could kick ass, take names, dance backward in high heels and smile about it the whole time. Granted, I worked myself to the point of panic attacks, so I can’t say it was always healthy. But I could do it. I could put my head down and work. And now? Now I keep myself so busy with mindless activity that I never stop to think my own thoughts. It was safer that way, I reasoned. If I didn’t slow down, then I wouldn’t have time to feel everything, I wouldn’t have time to consider whether I had truly dealt with the demons I claimed to have slain already.

My biggest problem when breaking away from distraction? The silence it left me with.

When you slow down and stop staring out at all of the shiny things in the world, you are forced to look within yourself. If you are anything like me: you perhaps have a few boxes that haven’t been unpacked yet. When you slow down, you are forced to open up those little cardboard nests and delve into what they have to offer. You will be tempting to shy away, to turn up the music as loud as you can and shut your eyes so you don’t have to look. But if you do that- the monster will just toss you back into the sea, and you’ll be starting back at the beginning; do not pass go, do not collect $200.

My distractions stem from events that took place a year ago. I was on a very particular path, one that filled me with the most immense joy I have ever know. And then the world shattered and swallowed me whole. Suddenly everything I had been so sure about went up in flames like it had been drenched in gasoline. I was left standing there in shock with the ashes raining down around me like snow. I spent the next year rebuilding, recreating a version of me I could live with. But there was a portion I didn’t touch, a piece of my future I still couldn’t sort out on my own. I spent the next year in a self-imposed limbo: too terrified to ask myself “What now?” What would I do if I path I had planned for my whole life eroded away, what would I do if I could never find it again? I didn’t want to answer the question. So I didn’t let myself ask it. I turned away and looked at something else until the desire for questioning had passed.

I built up these tiny habits all in an effort to fill the silence that my brain desperately wanted to use for thoughts I wasn’t ready to explore. I became too good at my own game, running to distraction until I began to veer towards it without any prompting, building habits out of nothing; habits that still don’t want to be fully broken. I pretended it wasn’t a problem until I couldn’t pretend anymore. When you fill every crack with something loud and shiny, you begin to lose focus. The distractions sapped away the thing that I prized above everything else: my spark, my voice, the creativity that makes me feel like I’m actually engaged in this life. It was time to break the cycle and face the truth I had hidden from.

I’ve been fighting this monster for several weeks now. Truthfully, I expected to be well on the path to adventure, the Muse nearly in my grasp. But I didn’t anticipate the strength of the beast I had created. One day I will be great: allowing my brain to wander in the silence, phone away, words pouring from my pen onto paper, rediscovering the things I was once so passionate about. And then other days I am lost in the sounds, filled to capacity with everything bright and shiny. I am playing a tug of war over my own attention.

And yet, a few days ago I think I may have finally made some progress. After a week of near-panic attack moments I found myself on the verge of tears for no apparent reason as my partner and I drove to his parents’ house for dinner. I was staring out at the trees and the river as we drove towards the town of our childhood, and something cracked inside. Finally, I spoke up, filling the silence in the car with the questions I was too afraid to ask on my own, “What do we do now, if this never works out for us? What will happen if I have to find a new path? What kind of life will help me find a new happy?”

I didn’t have an answer that night. But we started talking over milkshakes from our favorite drive-thru. It was liberating in a way, facing these questions that had haunted me for a year- but facing them with someone beside me, someone who knew how to turn my worst-case into something less scary, someone who had survived the same heartbreak I had when the earth shattered a year ago. Saying it out loud made the fears less powerful, it dulled the pain because it acknowledged that it existed.

I still don’t have an answer to my question. I still have no idea where my path is going to lead. But I’m finally learning to take steps towards something, even though I’m entirely sure what that ‘something’ is. To defeat the monster you don’t have to come up with the perfect solution. This isn’t that kind of story. To slay the beast you must simply stand your ground and face it. You have to surrender to silence and learn to live in it again. You have to stop hiding behind screens and noises and shiny things.

The first monster you will be forced to face as you wade through the Sea of Distraction: the one you created yourself, the one that is keeping you locked on your island. Good luck, my friends, it is an unrelenting foe.

The Sea of Distraction: Digital Detox, Day 1 (Rescuing the Muse)

The Adventure Continues: Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

The fire burnt down to embers as we tossed and turned through the night, each pretending to be lost in our own dreamland to avoid speaking to the others. Admitting we were afraid of today could have broken our resolve, kept us shivering on this lonely island instead of taking the first steps to find our Muse, locked away in a distant tower. Now that the sun is beginning to creep above the horizon, we sit, staring blearily at one another. The moment of truth has come.

We douse the coals, though there is nothing left on this island for the flames to dance with; we used every last scrap to build that puny little boat we expect to sail on. For the past week we toiled away with the driftwood that washed ashore, lashing it together with bits of rope braided together from the sea grass. Our vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as castaways in this dangerous sea, we could hardly expect more. Every day as we toiled away we kept our eyes on the horizon, half hoping our daring Muse would have found a way to rescue herself and come back to us. But alas, we must be the heroes of this story.

We take a deep breath, look out at our island one last time, and step onto our tiny craft. Pushing out into the roiling waters that have surrounded us for ages, stealing our motivation and locking us in this solitary place. It is time to do the unthinkable, my friends; traverse the Sea of Distractions. Few make it across these waters; many find themselves flung back on the shores they tried to leave. But not us: for we know the secrets to these waters, we know where they get their strength. And we know how to fight.

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

A Digital Detox in the Sea of Distraction:

It is no secret that one of the largest enemies in the fight for creative control is the technology we wield like modern-day wizards. Our devices can be the perfect little weapons for mass distraction, siphoning our mental energy into clickable games, social media, the constant bombardment of alerts and notifications. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think our techy sidekicks are evil; far from it, much like Kylo Ren, they have the light and dark sides coursing through their veins. What makes all the difference is how you decide to channel that energy. And I will be the first to admit: it is far easier to channel that energy towards distraction instead of creation.

Now, I tend to be a bit leery of studies that lump all screen time together; as someone who works at a desk when I’m not moonlighting as a super hero (or villain?), I will automatically clock in nearly eight hours of ‘screen time’ just from work alone. And not all screen time is created equal, in my opinion. I do most of my writing on a laptop because I have an easier time keeping up with the flow of the mental story I’m working through than when I am putting pen to paper. That being said, I know that I have a lot of room for improvement.

The brain is pretty astounding in its ability to adapt to new experiences. This skill is known as neuroplasticity, and it is the reason we can readjust so easily to a changing world. In 2008 a study conducted at Dundee University in Scotland found that adults who grew up in households with black-and-white TVs were more likely to dream in black and white. Younger participants who grew up with screens full of technicolor almost always dreamed in color. This is a small change, but it just shows you how susceptible the brain is to the evolving technology in the world around us.

It used to be an insult when someone compared your attention span to a goldfish: and yet, new studies are indicating that in the future this could be more of a compliment. According to a study done by Microsoft, the average human’s attention span was calculated to be about 12 seconds back in 2000. Today it is more in the range of 8 seconds. To give you a frame of reference: a goldfish clocks in at 9 seconds. We are going the way of the guppy. While many things could contribute to these numbers, it is true that there has been a steady decline since the invention of the smartphone, and anecdotally many people would agree that they noticed a difference when they started relying on their gizmos more (at least I have).

The term ‘popcorn brain’ has even appeared in recent years to describe the effects of too much screen time and over-connectivity. Popcorn brain describes the way we can become so hooked to the electronic multitasking that we are often expected to do, that we begin to crave the fast-paced way we can bounce between topics. The fallout from this: the slower-paced ‘real world’ can’t hold our interest in the same way that it once did. Ever find yourself reaching for your phone when you are waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom, or standing in line: the slow-paced life just isn’t catching your interest anymore. Pop, pop- so goes your adrenaline-craving brain.

So how do you fight your favorite frenemy when tech is the way of the world? I’m not saying to completely disconnect: that’s not feasible, and in many ways it’s not necessarily ideal. There are so many positive things that can come from our techy world, so many avenues of inspiration available to walk our Muse down. No, the trick is to attempt to be a bit more responsible with our tech lives; to use our powers for good, not evil.

Step one in the Digital Detox is very simple: lift your eyes from that screen and take stock. How much time do you spend on distractions? Can you allow yourself to just sit somewhere for five minutes without pulling out your phone and idly scrolling? Is there a particular app that you feel you may have an unhealthy attachment to? Or perhaps one that makes you feel better about the world around you?

Try not to laugh at this next suggestion: you can even download an app to help you keep up a tally of your usage. You might be surprised at how many times you unlock your screen, how many minutes you spend scrolling through pictures you aren’t really looking at or glancing at headlines when you never read the articles. Often times there are patterns in your day that you might miss without the visual pie charts staring you in the eyes.

What did I learn about my own habits? My favorite kinds of distractions come in an audio format. Most of my filler time is spent with an audiobook playing while I click away at one of those easy games that don’t require much thought, just a lot of thumb taps or puzzles. I also like to fill all of the little nooks and crannies of my day with tiny little check-ups that add up to a whole lot of time. I have a tendency to check my phone for something simple: like the time, without actually registering what I’m reading, so I have to check it again 12 seconds later. My attention span doesn’t seem to be much better than Dori’s as she’s helping to find Nemo.

I also noticed the way my distracting tendencies skyrocket when I am feeling a particular amount of stress. All of my numbers jump, and I dive head first into the closest Kindle book or puzzle game to keep my brain from racing through my usual symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately for me, distracting myself from what is really important usually tends to increase my anxiety, which in turn makes me want to create more distractions so I don’t have to focus on the anxiety- and you see how this snowball is suddenly large enough to take out an entire city block.

So what do I want? What am I hoping to regain with a digital detox? It’s really quite simple: my sanity. I want to rediscover my focus so that I can actually finish one of the ten thousand articles I have tabbed on my computer. I want to be able to put the phone down and sit on a bench watching the world around me. I want to be content in my own head, comfortable with my own thoughts. I want to feel like I am in control of my life again. I want to feel like my brain has the space it needs to think clearly and rediscover the creative energy that used to drive everything I did. I want there to be balance in the force again.

Once we have a good baseline, it will be easier to find the right way to battle these waves and navigate the treacherous creatures below the surface. It is important to be honest with yourself about your habits; both good and bad, and attempt to root out the cause. Having insight and awareness will make at the difference when trying to reach the distant shore.

Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

She stands in the window of the tower, staring forlornly at a world she no longer belongs to. She remembers what it had been like, back when she could escape these four walls that held her. She remembers the way the dewy grass felt underfoot as she ran across the early morning fields. She can picture what it was like to sit beside a crackling fire sharing stories, fingers sticky with melting sugars and cheeks sore from laughter. The girl sighs, turning back into the dark and dingy room. That had been her life before; before the monsters came and stole her away in the dead of night. They whisked her off to this far away place and locked her in a fortress, destined to be forgotten by the world below.

I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive, hauntingly sad eyes staring straight through me. My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I, myself, created. This isn’t the first time the damsel in distress needed rescuing; though the walls to this tower seem much thicker than they once were, the monsters are bolder, aware of all of my usual tricks.

Nonetheless, I take a deep breath and picture a tiny little hero stepping onto the field, long brown hair blowing in the wind in the striking way that only Hollywood can achieve. Her tall leather boots are tied all the way up her shins. Her traveling clothes are bedraggled and threadbare from the climb to this precarious place. The hilt of a silver sword glints at her hip , and a roughly hewn wooden shield bounces against her back as she steps forward. She takes a moment to tie her hair back into a neat little bun before squaring her shoulders and grasping her weapon in one hand. She glares at the tower, eyes scanning every brick and grasping vine of ivy on its way to the top. She is here to save the damsel, to rescue her Muse from the grasping clutches of the emboldened enemy.

My inner struggle with writer’s block has turning into a raging battle. It has become a ruthless war of creativity; a struggle for the words that will save the Muse from her dragon-guarded keep. In truth, it is no wonder that the inner war has grown so intense; I never slow down long enough to allow myself to create. By the time I am finally able to sit down and spill a few words from my soul, I discover that the well has run dry. I am simply exhausted.

We live in a world that is constantly vying for our attention, overly connected and tuned in to every shift of the wind. We fill every single moment with a distraction, not wanting to miss out on anything important. We don’t even notice our attention span starting to ebb as we switch from reading entire magazines to glancing at snapshot headlines. We never realized that we were locking our Muse away behind a wall of notifications, locking her in a paper mâché prison of to-do lists. We fed the beasts of distraction never realizing that they were suffocating our creativity. We didn’t notice until we ran out of words, until the mocking blank page was too painful to stare at anymore.

Cultivating a mental and physical environment for creativity is a daunting task in the modern age. And yet the only way to rescue the Muse is to fight for her; to give her the nurturing space that will allow her to fight for herself. So, how do we save her, my friends? Like any true adventure: we must peek at the map.

The Map to the Muse:

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

My lovely band of wayward adventurers, we are currently marooned on the Island of the Lost (bottom left of the map: that little campfire, that is our humble little home base). The mission: to get to the upper righthand side of the map: the dragon-guarded keep imprisoning our Muse. To begin this journey we must do the unthinkable: traverse the Sea of Distractions. Do not let it’s alluring waves fool you- this trek is not for the faint of heart. To survive this first challenge we must do the single thing that strikes fear into the hearts of even the bravest traveler: learn to be bored.

Science has shown a direct link between boredom and creativity. There is a reason why most of us get our best ideas while in the shower (about 72% of people have reported this is where most people have their greatest eureka moments). There is something about the combination of a mind finally able to wander aimlessly in whichever direction it chooses, coupled with the vulnerability and intimacy of standing naked under a stream of water. Our brains are wired for stimulation; and when we can’t get it from the outside world, we create it on the inside. Boredom gives your brain a chance to fire different neurons, processing events that have taken place, making new connections between unrelated ideas, working through problems, and providing insights that can lead you down the path of inspiration.

Unfortunately for us, we live in a world of constant connection. We are on a never-ending loop of notifications, plugged into the world around us, desperate to soak it all in so we don’t miss anything. While technology is capable of making our lives so much better: connecting us to people we would never meet otherwise, giving us valuable information with the tap of a finger, or simply help us manage our day-to-day lives; it is also far too easy to get drunk with the power you carry in the palm of your hand. Much like Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, our techy sidekicks have both the light side and the dark side within them. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be slipping towards the dark more often than not.

This first hurdle for me is going to be one of the hardest: detoxing from the distractions in order to open myself up for more creative thought. There will be a lot of trial and error, perhaps some painful insights and diving deeper into the root of why I let my monsters steal my Muse without much of a fight.

Tonight we gather around the fire one last time before climbing into our rickety row boat in the morning. So tell me, my friends, when you face the Sea of Distractions: what kind of monsters are lurking below the surface? And do we dare to face them together?

Naming Your Fears (the core of writer’s block)

The firing synapses in my brain went quiet the moment I turned my eyes to the blank page. My mind was suddenly as still as the world during a 3am snowfall. It was peaceful and oh so infuriating. I am a lover of words, a connoisseur of the scribbled pages. I adore the way these tiny symbols can carry the weight of the world within their thin lines and looping forms. And yet the second that I find myself hovering on the periphery of a blank page, everything goes blank. I am alone with a blinking cursor that mocks me with every single blip of its heartbeat.

So here I sit, practicing in an exercise of futility; fighting the writer’s block by writing about its very essence in flowery descriptive sentences that stretch off into the sunset. I fight with pointless words that won’t ever see the light of day, hoping that each syllable I string together will slash at the tentacles holding my thoughts hostage. I feel like a hero in all of those fantasy books I’m continually reading, although I probably look a bit more like Don Quixote charging at windmills. That’s okay, I always found his pure devotion a bit enthralling, so I guess he is the perfect mascot in this little game.

It feels silly, really, to be writing like this. But perhaps there is a purpose, chipping away at the fear and anxiety that I can’t do it by…well, just doing it. Perhaps there is power in this Sisyphean task. At least I haven’t completely given up the fight, staring up at the crest of the hill and focusing on each individual step towards my goal. It’s almost liberating, in a way, jotting down words to describe the monster that has been haunting you for far too long.

It has been too easy lately to live in the world of distractions and ignore the passions fizzling away inside my chest. I’ve been losing myself in books, tv shows, games, errands and chores, time with friends and family. I’ve been getting caught up in making plans and resolutions; all while carefully ignoring the difficult things that will bring real meaning to my temporary existence. If I don’t create, then I don’t have to be disappointed if the outcome doesn’t match my expectations. It’s a game of Schrodinger’s cat; at the moment I am both an amazing writer, as well as an awful one.

The truth is, if I don’t write then I don’t have to face the fact that I’ve let my voice slip away; I’m like Ariel after she made her deal with the Sea Witch. My ideas feel stale and overdone. My words are rusty and dry. The touch of optimism and humor that normally colors my work feels like an insincere shadow. And perhaps this is where we reach the real crux of the issue, the reason why I have been so damn afraid to put pen to paper and send it out into the world. I am different, the past year has changed me and I fear that it may have changed my writing too.

It is no secret to those who know me that the past year was the hardest one I have ever struggled through. My earth cracked and swallowed me whole; the fall left me shattered and lost. I have spent the past twelve months picking through the rubble of my old life to decide what was worth carrying into the new version of myself I was building. I glued each piece back together with intention and love; and I’m proud of my new mosaic, although it only bears a slight resemblance to what it once way. I am not afraid of who I have become. But I am afraid that I have changed too much, that I am no longer the same creator that I was.

Writing is such a personal endeavor, colored by everything we experience and encounter in our lives. It is impacted by the people we surround ourselves with, the news we read, the tv shows, books, movies, music, and art we consume. Our words come from a deeper place. So it stands to reason that when that place has changed shape, it is inevitable that our work will too. Truthfully, I am a bit afraid to see the changes. I am scared that I just wont be any good.

I am aware that this is a silly fear; change is not always a bad thing, and I’ve always known that my work could use a bit more grit, more fire and fury. I guess I’m worried that I wont rediscover my lighter touch; that I will be too dark and twisty to recognize the words I always loved. Where there was confidence and fire, I now find insecurity and trepidation. I am gun shy and world-weary. I don’t know what will come out of my soul and find life on the page.

And yet, here I am; still writing gibberish and nonsense about writer’s block, poking at a sleeping dragon to see if it awakens, naming my monsters and charging at windmills. Perhaps not all hope is lost, if I’m still willing to be optimistic enough to try. Perhaps it’s time to release my fear and see what words are dancing around inside of me. Who knows what I am bound to find if I keep pushing through the anxiety.

To the little monster who’s been sitting on my shoulder whispering in ear that these words will not be good enough. So what? They are here, they fought their way to the page, and are staring proudly back at me. My words my be brittle and unsure, but they will get stronger. I will find a new voice to suite the new me. I have named the monster, revealed it for what it really is. I will be like brave Don Quixote, charging at my wordy windmills in order to slay my dragons.

Out of the Ashes (the growth of a seed)

When a forest is burned, what grows back often does not resemble what was lost. The searing flames cut away the old, they leave the soil barren and empty. But in this emptiness a miracle takes place; something new is given a chance to live. The seeds that had remained buried and dormant for so long are granted the space they need to struggle for the light. It may be months before you see them peek out from the wreckage, but they always emerge. Humans are more similar to the forests than we ever dare admit.
It is an inevitable reality that we all must walk through the flames; it is the price we pay to truly live. Often times the person who emerges from the fire is far different than the one who stepped into it. Six months ago I was shattered. I stumbled through my days wondering how the world could still turn even though it had cracked. And yet now, the first green sprouts are beginning to bloom.

There is pain in the loss, in the knowledge of what can no longer be. But there is a power too, when you realize that the worst has happened and you are still alive. You find a new purpose to fill your empty spaces, you pay tribute to the person you were before, and you learn to love the one you are rebuilding. It is not an easy process to grow a forest again on scorched land. It takes patience and kindness in a world that doesn’t always foster those two ideals.

When you find yourself lost in that barren landscape, one question echoes through the emptiness: what will you allow to grow in that broken place? This is the distinction between us and the forests we love- we get a choice to foster and cultivate what is left when the world changes us.

Give yourself permission to grow again, do not clutch the arid landscape of your life before. This is perhaps the hardest thing you will ever have to do; to acknowledge your pain and the way it has transformed you, to forgive, and to take the first steps towards healing. It will take time; all beautiful things do. But you are worth it, your journey is not done.

You have to feel it- everything, though there are days you may think you will break under the pressure of it all. The only way to grow is to let those rains wash over you. If you fight it, tuck it away, run from it- the pain will only make you hard and bitter to the world. But opening up to it will transform you.

Often those who have been through the worst that the world can offer are the ones who show the deepest kindness and compassion. These are the ones who will willingly step back into the flames carrying buckets of water to create a path for those still lost in the fire. These are the ones who took their broken pieces and patched them together with gold; they respect and acknowledge their damage, and are made all the more beautiful for it. Growth is not easy; it will be the greatest struggle of your life. But give yourself permission to do it anyway.

I struggled for a long time. It took me six months to realize that I was angry with myself for things I could not control. It took me half a year to acknowledge that I wasn’t willing to let myself heal, that I didn’t think I deserved it. I was carrying around so much grief, and I didn’t know what to do with it all. But you see, grief is really just love overflowing. I needed a place to put it. So I decided to start with me.

I sat down and wrote myself a letter. I acknowledged my pain, why I was so angry. And I forgave myself. I was finally ready to take that step. And then I did the thing that had scared for half a year: I gave myself permission to continue on with my life. I won’t say that I ‘let go’ of what happened or that I ‘moved on’ because I don’t think that’s always possible. I didn’t want to move on because that felt like forgetting; and that is something I won’t ever be okay with. But I acknowledged that these broken fragments are pieces of me that will always be here. I am a kinder person for them. The journey is only just beginning, and it takes effort every single day to keep growing, to show myself love and kindness, to remind myself that I deserve both. I was burned to the ground, but I survived; and now it is time embrace the girl who was strong enough to grow from the ashes.

Beautiful Souls Create Beautiful Worlds

She was 32 years old, her favorite color was purple. She was a waitress and a paralegal. She lived in an apartment with her chihuahua, Violet. She loved people and wanted the best for everyone she encountered. She felt the world so deeply that any story of hate or oppression could bring her to tears. She stood up for the things that she believed in. And because of this, she was killed- one week ago today the world lost a beautiful soul to the hands of hate. Her name was Heather Heyer; she was murdered when a car intentionally plunged into a crowd of counter-protestors who were ensuring that their own voices would drown out the hate spewing from the white supremacists who had charged into Charlottesville.

I didn’t know her, but I’ve known countless like her. Her death strikes a deep chord with me because she could have easily been one of my friends, my family, myself. She was one of us; she had a compassionate soul which left her no choice but to feel the beauty and pain so evident in this world right down to the core of her being. She was one of us; she never hesitated to stand up for those who couldn’t, give help and strength to those in need. She was vibrant and beautiful, inside and out. She followed her heart, even when it led to her death; she was one of us.

She was only a few years older than me. She worked in the same field as I do; and anyone in legal will tell you that it takes a very special type of person with a very odd sense of humor to handle what you see. She got the job because of who she was, because of how hard she worked- she got the job with a high school diploma and elbow grease, as the saying goes; just like I did. She wanted to help people, she went to rallies and protests and gave a voice to the things that mattered to her; it could have been me standing there, it could have been my sister, my mom, my friends. We have all marched in those lines, we have held our signs and chanted those words. We have all looked at this world of our and tried to make it better. She was one of us.

Some days I feel like I’m lost in Oz, in a land full of tin men who have lost their hearts and scarecrows who don’t know how to think for themselves. The only problem is that they don’t realize it. I remember when relatives and friends were posting sentiments to social media about ramming cars into crowds of protestors because “if they are in the street stopping traffic, they deserve it.” I remember being shocked (and from a girl who has spent ten years in the court system, very little still has the power to shock me). I remember trying to have conversations with them about it- every time they deflected with jokes that they thought were so damn funny- until now when they’re not. Jokes and laughter can be an outlet, but they can also normalize behavior and give people ideas that they are better off not having. My heart broke back then, and it’s breaking now because of the silence exhibited by these same people. They were so quick to laugh and makes jokes at the idea, and yet now that it is once again a poignant reality- they view the subject as too serious and taboo to touch. So they are silent.

The other day a woman who I have known and respected for years made a snide comment about the death of this beautiful woman. “You can’t get killed in a protest if you are at work.” I am still in shock at the callous response from someone who claims to be a good, religious woman, someone who is an involved member of her community, someone who used to bring bright smiles to my day when I was running short of my own. How do you respond to that kind of hatred? How do you react when someone shrugs their shoulders and points the finger at the victim? What happened to our hearts? If it had been me- someone she has known for years, I wonder if her reaction would have been different. I wonder if she would have been sad, or lit a candle in my memory. I wonder if she would have decried the hate that took the life of someone she had known for a decade. Or would she have shrugged her shoulders, thinking I was partially to blame for simply being there. Would her response have been different? And if it had- why? Why would one life matter more than another?

People keep telling me that you can’t look at Charlottesville as if it is a microcosm; you must view the whole picture, and the whole picture isn’t full of that much hate. They tell me that there are more good people in the world than bad, and that these people- the ones who marched through a town carrying torches and screaming Nazi slogan- they are rare, and as such should not be given the attention that we have shown. While I agree with this to a degree- I am still too cautious to nod my head and look the other way.

You see, there were lessons to be learned from Charlottesville, and yet a lot of them were ones that did not present themselves until days later. I agree that most people will denounce the type of open racism we saw last week. And yet in the days that followed I still saw a lot of shoulder shrugging, a lot of jokes, a lot of excuses and red herrings, a lot of people who turned away and found something else to distract them. In the days that followed I saw our bigger problem; and it is in the subtle actions that decry our lack of compassion, our biases that reside just below the surface, our heartless responses to moments of pain and fear. It is etched into the complete lack of empathy for anyone who is even remotely different from those we view as being a part of ‘our tribe,’ whether we chose religion, race, sex, philosophical viewpoints, etc- as the markers for that tribe. We have lost our sympathy and our compassion for anyone outside of our bubble. The river does not need to become a tidal wave to cause damage; it is usually the calmly flowing stream that can erode the banks and change the flow of the river entirely. Our problem is not solely with the blatant hate and prejudice that we saw last week; it is the more subtle daily interactions we have with one another. It is the way people respond to someone different, in the way they so easily dismiss another’s concerns. It is in the fact that members of my own family thought it was funny to joke about how satisfying it would be to ram their car into a crowd of protestors knowing that I have been in those crowds. It is in the fact that I can bring this to their attention- and they will dismiss my words and my concern. They will refuse to have a simple conversation; they will dismiss me and say they were only joking. It is a cold world that will find this funny.

There’s this interesting concept in the world today where people seem to think that they can dictate how others should interpret the world around them. You don’t get to tell someone that what they experienced wasn’t racism. It’s not your job to roll your eyes and tell her she was mistaken- that wasn’t sexism. You don’t get to tell people what lenses they need to view their life through. Your job is to ask a question, to open a dialog and figure out why they feel that way. Perhaps both parties will learn something new about the other. You see, our backgrounds, our appearances, our modes of speech and residence will create the life experiences that shape the lenses we view the world through. It’s easier to be blind to racism or sexism- or any other ‘ism’- if you do not have to experience it yourself. It was easy for people to tell me that sexism wasn’t a problem- and yet I remember when my friend’s boss openly told her that they almost didn’t hire her because she was a woman. People rolled their eyes and said that age discrimination wasn’t a thing- but I still remember the day that a customer refused to let me help him because I ‘looked too young to know what I was doing.’ So instead he waited for the older woman next to me to be available- ironically, she was the woman I was training at the time. It was easy for people to tell me that racism wasn’t a problem; and yet they never stopped to listen when I repeated the stories from my biracial cousin. We share the same blood, we were raised the same way- and yet the world treats us in very different ways. The last time a cop stopped me it was to ask if I was okay and if I needed anything. And yet when he would get stopped, he would be questioned and treated with suspicion- every time. Just because you do not see something through the same lens as another person does not give you a right to discount their experiences. That is not a decision for you to make.

Tonight I am angry, I am sad, and I am at a loss for what to do. There has been so much hate; some more blatant than others, but the subtle kind has been just as dangerous. The problem with our problems is that people want to remain blind. Admitting that there is an issue means admitting that we all have a part to play in it. I’m exhausted with the perpetual hate. I am so damn tired of everyone pointing the finger in a hundred different directions instead of where it belongs. We did this, and we have to fix this. We have to look within ourselves and confront our own monsters and biases. We have to own our experiences and accept that there are a million different viewpoints out there; each one as credible as your own. We have to stop dismissing one another and turning our backs to the problems that we believe don’t directly effect us. We have to find our hearts again, we have to have compassion and empathy. We have to start wearing each other’s shoes and walking for miles through their complex and beautiful lives. We have to stand up and speak out when something is wrong. We have to be patient enough to have meaningful conversations, and above all we have to learn how to listen. We have to share our stories so that people can begin to see the world through another lens. We all have something valuable to add to this conversation, we all have a responsibility to one another to speaks our truths.

Tonight I ask two simple things; if there is nothing else you ever take away from me or these words I’ve tossed out into the world, I pray you take these to heart. First: remember those brave souls like Heather Heyer- those courageous lions who got up every single day with their hearts on their sleeves. Remember the people who felt compelled by their own compassion to go out into the world and attempt to make it better than it was yesterday. Remember them tonight- these real flesh and blood people who deserved more than what they got.

And the next thing I ask: emulate them. Just because the world can hurt you, just because the pain can be so overwhelming- please, don’t ever stop feeling. Don’t ever turn your head away- witness this. Both the beautiful and the painful deserve to be seen and remembered. See this world for what it is and also for all of the potential that it holds. Be kind, be compassionate, tell stories and listen, please for the love of all that is good- listen to the words of others. Don’t dismiss them, talk to them. Be kind. Be human. It is a blessing and a curse to feel the world so deeply- never stop feeling it. That is the only thing that will change all of this. We owe it to ourselves and to one another to throw some kindness back into the world, to shine a light into all of its dark places. Be a lightning rod for change, use your own kind words and gentle actions to force others to see you and what you are doing. Remind people that there is hope and good still exists. Don’t ever let them forget.