Health and Wellness Baseline (The Sea of Distractions – Creativity Quest)

Carrying on with our Bored to Brilliant Baseline Analysis, we hit on the Health and Wellness section. It is particularly poignant for me, considering I’ve spent the past week and a half recovering from some complications after oral surgery. A week and a half of chronic pain that made it nearly impossible to talk or eat (two thing I really enjoy doing) left me in tears a few nights. So instead of writing, I opted for rest. Frustrating from a goal perspective, but I’m on the upswing now and I feel ready to charge ahead once more.

So, this particular category is one I tended to neglect. I’ve never included it before in my personal self-reflections, but the more research I’ve done on creativity and how the brain works, the more I realize how closely it is tied to our overall health- both mental and physical. Our brains don’t survive in a vacuum, it is not separated from out physical bodies; which means when you work on one, you really should be working on the other as well if you want to reach your full potential.

Physical activity boosts your brains productivity, giving it all the good chemicals to marinade in. Water and proper nutrition give it the nutrients it needs to perform optimally. They keep your energy regulated so that dreaded brain fog has less of an opportunity to encroach on your precious time. Sleep and rest are vital to your mental activity: allowing your brain to process the events of the day and new information you have acquired. It helps you map new mental connections and inspires new ideas by assisting you in putting a variety of ideas together. Not to mention, dreams can be a pretty awesome source of inspiration. Even if they are a bit awkward and nonsensical once you rejoin the conscious world, the snippets that they provide can be invaluable to creative projects. I have several stories and pictures I’ve created off of my unconscious self’s work that I am still very proud of. Don’t underestimate the value of rest for your work.

My stats:

Physical activity: truthfully, I don’t do a whole lot. I have a fitness tracker that logs my steps and activity. Based on it’s data, the past few weeks I’ve averaged about 75 active minutes a day. Most of my activity is walking, but not much else. I haven’t been doing my stretching or any type of active fitness plan. I walk when I get anxious, and apparently I get anxious enough to hit at least an hour. Now that the weather is nice, I am finding myself outside more, particularly because my dog thinks he is a sun god and must lay out there from the moment it rises until well after it has set in the evening, otherwise he will transform into a hell-hound send my Hades himself.

Score: 3/10 – lots of room for improvement with intentional activity.

Sleep: Once again, I have an app that roughly tracks this- very roughly. Based on it’s data, I average about 6.4 hours per night. Lately it’s been more restful sleep than it used to be, though I know I need to start weaning myself off the audiobooks. I am somewhat consistent on my bedtime and wake time, though I do still wake up in the middle of the night a lot. And I spend too much time looking at my screen before I try to sleep.

Score: 7/10 Of course, sleep is the one thing I do better than anything else. I could fine-tune my routine a bit here, but overall- I don’t feel too bad about this one.

Water and Nutrition: The past few weeks I’ve been a lot better. I (mostly) cut caffiene from my diet, which has helped my anxiety tremendously. My partner and I are both trying to prioritize more whole foods and natural eating, incorporating more meat-free days. While we have room to improve, we are getting the right intentions down and working towards building up the habits. We even managed some meal prep: tofu and veggie stir fry for lunch this week. Incidentally- it was my first time attempting to cook with tofu…let’s just say there was a learning curve involved there.

Score: 7/10

The Challenge

It’s a pretty simple one: healthier living equals a healthier body, which translates into a healthier mind. A healthier mind is more productive, flexible and creative. So if we want to rescue that muse, we’ve got to act like the heroes of our tale- and that includes some physical training and personal care. Think about just about any Dystopian story and channel that energy. Turn it into a game if you have to, or find someone to compete with if that’s what gets you excited. The point is to treat your body the way it deserves to be treated.

The Creative Challenge

  • Think of a character from a favorite book or move (preferably a ‘save the world’ kind- that will really get us the farthest) and create a workout routine inspired by them. Then (and here’s the really fun part) actually attempt it.
  • Come up with a ‘sedentary activity plan’: pick a book or favorite movie, and make a game out of it. A few examples:
    • Book Nerd Edition: Every paragraph you read in your book, you have to walk 5 laps around the room. Every page, ten jumping jacks. Every chapter: stretch while reading the first two pages. Every time x character’s name appears- skip down the hallway once
    • Pick a favorite movie or show: every time character x appears, do 5 jumping jacks. For any fight sequences (or love scene, dramatic scene, etc) do wall sits until it’s over. Whenever a particular phrase is uttered, do 5 lunges.

Creativity Challenge: Tech Baseline (Rescue the Muse Challenge)

Welcome back, my wayward band of weary travelers! Yesterday I proposed a particular proposition that was not for the faint of heart: a digital detox coupled with a creativity challenge (you know, to fill up all that extra time you’ll have now that you’ve unglued yourself from your phone). For those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, hit the rewind button to yesterday: https://tipsytyper.com/2021/06/02/tech-baseline-your-favorite-frienemy-rescuing-the-muse/ While it might all seem a bit confused to any newcomer, the cliff’s notes version is this: we are undergoing a quest to save our muse, the light a spark of creativity within us, to reclaim our adventurous spirits. We’ve done a lot of ground work, but this is one of the first creative challenges we’ve had, and as such- I thought it was important to post about my own progress.

Reminder to everyone: this is a no-judgment zone, so, ya know, don’t judge. Simple rule, even simpler execution. The point isn’t necessarily about the final outcome, its about the process and the actual ‘doing.’ Meaning every single thing I do here could be a hideous monstrosity, but I still get to put it in the win column because I made the attempt. These days that is especially true because I will openly admit: my creative muscles are weak. I am rusty, and it probably shows. But damn, did it feel good to jump back into the fray.

There were four different options in this challenge, so that anyone who chose to participate could pick your poison. Since I’m running this show I thought it was only fair that I take a sip from each flask. To make it manageable I set myself a time limit for each task so I wouldn’t get caught up in the perfection game (yea, don’t worry, you can definitely tell perfection was far from my aim).

Challenge #1: Arts and Crafts

The challenge: Create a tech monster. Draw it on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition.

The purpose of this first challenge was to give your ‘demon’ a face. It makes your adversary less scary and more tangible. This was a trick I learned while dealing with anxiety- when I pictured my anxiety monster it became less of this intangible idea that was bigger and stronger than me. No, it turned into a little creature perched on my shoulder that I had to learn to coexist with.

Now, the lowdown on my creation before I unveil the masterpiece. I had initially intended to make a 3D creature using actual phones, wires, and gizmos I have laying around the house. I actually got fairly far into this process when I realized that the key element to it was my own phone…and my phone is currently the only way I can take a picture of my creation to share with you. Yea, I was flummoxed. So I moved on to plan B: make a drawing and toss in a few little physical elements that I had intended to put in the 3D version. I set a timer for 15 minutes, and that’s all I was allowed to get.

The picture is…kinda hard to understand. Drawn in your basic graphite pencil on traditional printer paper, it is truly a work of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, it’s supposed to be a smart phone- one leg is an old ipod (the kind with that circular dial in the middle and no touch screen), and the other leg is an old flip phone. But don’t get too caught up in how he moves. He has tentacle arms: two of them are chargers- easier to stab with. The other tentacles though, now those are the real trouble. They’re USB cables, and as you can see, they plug directly into a person’s head. The point being that they capture us, enthrall us, turn us into little tech zombies.

The physical items surrounding it: you’ve got a pile of old phones, charging cords wrapped around a Belle figurine (meant to symbolize the way your technology can hold you hostage- I know, I know, I am one deep well, aren’t I?). In the upper left-hand corner you’ll see an hour glass depicting all of the time you lose with this particular monster. And beside that you’ll find a frog with a broken leg. Doesn’t seem like it fits, does it? Oh, but wait- it has a purpose! That particular frog was one of the first things I (well, my spouse) 3D printed. Super cool invention, but requires a lot of calibration, otherwise you wind up with 3-legged-Hopper over there. This was supposed to call out our technological advancements and how they don’t always come out the way we had hoped. You know, like cell phones: you think you are making the gateway to the future that will revolutionize the world- instead we wound up with an addictive device that keeps us away until 3am connecting candies of the same color.

Challenge #2: The Wordy Birdy

Write a short story about a robot. Imagine a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well

The time limit I gave myself here was my lunch break at work. It was supposed to be an hour, but was probably closer to 30 or 45 minutes after all the interruptions. This is a very rough story, not really edited. Truthfully, it’s not so much a short story as it is an idea blip- the kind of thing I’ll start jotting down when I have the inkling of an idea percolating in the back of my mind and I want to start getting it on paper to see what I’m working with.

I felt the steady thrum of my heartbeat; the only evidence I needed to tell me that they hadn’t discovered me yet. If they had I would have been dead before I got within a mile of this building. Unless they were watching me, waiting to see what my game plan would be. I couldn’t be the only one who had attempted this insane mission. There had been rumors about this place since we realized what the hell was going on, though no one acted on it back then. Fools, we had all been hopeful fools, thinking the nightmare would end on it’s own.

Decades before this even started there had been those suspicious souls who had tried to warn us. With every new breakthrough development, each leap forward, they raised their battle cry and flooded the market with post-apolcalypic sci-fi. We chalked it up to cheap entertainment and ignored the messages encoded within. Their warning went unheeded, unnoticed. The hubris of humans knows no bounds.

We applauded when Alfred, the first truly learning AI held a conversation with a nine year old child. We marveled when he crafted a symphony, filling the auditoriums to watch. His first book had record sales before it was even officially released. Creative thought was the benchmark of our success. It was also the beginning of the end. As soon as he could reason, could analyze our actions; we were done for. We created him because we wanted to save the world. He was audacious enough to actually try to do it. Every movie out there had foreshadowed the flaw in our plan: when our creation realized that we were the true enemy, the destroyers of worlds. We were too smart in all the wrong ways and too stupid to see ourselves without the rose colored glasses we glued to our faces.

The first wave was small, just a blip on the global radar. When the Gizmos united behind Alfred their first move was to target the suspicious souls, those aware or poor enough to stay disconnected from our technical world. The Doomsdayers got a lot of things right, but they underestimated their ability to be found. How do you hide in a world surrounded by sattelites scanning and pinging information off one another? What about the drones and infra-red? You can’t hide when the Gizmos want to find you. The disconnected were easy to ferret out, to silence before they could ever raise the alarm.

Some countries were hit harder than others; those that lacked the infrastructure, the ones who weren’t as globally developed, the ones who had to depend on their own two hands rather than the technology that ran the rest of the world. But the harsh truth: no one really cared when they went silent. Oh sure, there were questions, hashtags, little banners you could stick on your profile picture. #ThoughtsAndPrayers, and then off to brunch you go. The harsh reality was that if you didn’t have something that the rest of the world wanted, you were viewed as expendable. It sounds heartless, but it’s really no different than any other crisis in world human history.

The next wave made it all hit closer to home. There were accidentals all of a sudden, unexplained malfunctions that resulted in deaths. One guy forgot his phone on a restaraunt table and the elevator he stepped into plummeted to the gournd. A woman’s smart watch died in the middle of her afternoon walk and the smart car cruising up to the crosswalk just didn’t stop. You get caught out in the world without your Gizmo on you- a phone, a watch, anything that pinged with a signal- and you were at risk. We started jokingly calling them our Passports, since you couldn’t go out into the world without them. We tried so bloody hard to act normal, like we had it under control. But we knew then that we were the rats and the Gizmos had made the maze. We were pawns in someone else’s game, and we couldn’t even mount a defense because they could hear everything we said.

We survived that way for months. There was tension and violence, sure, but overall- we adjusted. We knew the rules of the game. Until that first winter hit. Storms like you wouldn’t believe, thanks to global warming. Covered the map, entire countries braced for the storm of the century. Stores sold out of generators, lines for gas went on for a mile the week before. The lucky ones hoarded their supplies and the rest prayed for mother nature to be lenient. We tried to prepare, but when the power went out all hell broke loose. People panicked, and that was it. Some places got it back up and running, but by then the fear had set in. Most places went dark. I can’t say how many people were killed, but based on the ones I see when I start walking each day: the human race is probably down to it’s last 1%. Funny, I never thought of myself as a one percenter. Mom and dad would be so proud.

Those of us that made it through the Passport Purge are different. They used to call us cyborgs, back when they could call us anything. There was a level of distrust surrounding us. We were humans, but we were also like them. It was so fucking dramatic- all I have is a little implant in my heart, that’s it. And because of that I couldn’t be trusted? Did they really think that little hunk of junk in my chest made me more robot than human? Nah, the distrust came from jealousy. You see, we had our Passport right there inside of us. Mine wasn’t going to be left on a table, or die on my wrist. It wasn’t going to get stolen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t need to find a power source to plug it into every few hours. It kept me safe. Safer than all of them. Like that was really a winning fucking hand- all it did was ensure that I got a front row seat to the destruction of the human species. Not exactly the show I wanted a ticket for.

I wish I could say that after a while I became numb to the death, to the destruction, to the whole thing. I would love to tell you that after losing nearly 8 billion humans it stopped hurting- but I can’t. I feel every single one. I relive them every night when I sleep. I see someone else on the road and hold my breath, hoping I wont bear witness to one more casualty. It never gets any easier.

I thought about ending it once, you know. Well, more than once. I almost did it a couple of times. It wouldn’t be hard. There’s guns, pills, and hell, even drowning myself in a lake. The method didn’t really matter to me. But the thing that kept me from doing it- I knew they would want me to. I couldn’t let the Gizmos beat me, I would not help them win their damn war. If they wanted me dead, they would have to kill me themselves, I refused to do their work for them. So what do you live for when your purpose is gone?

Revenge; nothing as human as that. But how do you fight off a robot army when you only have a couple thousand humans scattered across the globe with no way to communicate? It’s not like you can mount a strong defense and push em down with brute force. Nope, I’ve looked at this problem from every angle, flipped it on it’s head and turned it backwards, but the answer always comes out the same. You have to go Kamikaze style. There were rumors before the world fell apart- rumors of government projects, war research surrounding EMPs. Sure, setting off one of those babies would pretty much ensure the end of any surviving human; it would sure as hell kill me in a heartbeat (no pun intended). But the way I see it, the human race on a runaway train towards extinction anyway, might as well take our worst creation out with us. Let the meek creatures finally inherit the earth. They couldn’t fuck it up any more than we did.

I heard rumors, before the world unofficially ended. Rumors about government facilities that tested EMPs as weapons- even heard the possible location, a place called Camp Gandalf. Leave it up to a bunch of computer nerds to name the world’s last defense Camp Gandalf. Oh well, who knows if any of it is even real. Then again, we got nukes, so this doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The theory is that those in power tried to use them, but their Gizmos ended them before they could even get within a mile of the building. Alfred is supposedly hiding in one of the facilities, guarding his biggest weakness- although that story always sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale villain for my taste.

I didn’t hear a lot of stories about the attempts, you know, with the participants all being dead now. But I suspect that whatever security they have surrounding those buildings, they were ore worried about regular humans with their easy-to-track Gizmos. Must have been like shooting fish in a barrel, knocking all of them out. No, I don’t think their security was as worried about middle-aged cyborgs with 35 year old tech buried in their chest. What makes me say that? Because I’m about fifty feet from Camp Gandalf and my heart is still beating. If they knew I was here, I’d already be dead. Win or lose, I guess I’m never coming back out of that building. If I fail, I hope those stories about aliens helping to build the pyramids are true- maybe they’ll come back and avenge their human friends. Gah, listen to me- and to think, I am the last hope to end the metal menaces- we’re screwed.

Challenge #3: Creative Kitchen

Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed. It doesn’t have to taste (or even look) good

Normally I am an avid kitchen googler. “What temperature to cook chicken” “What to do with leftover cabbage” “How to tell if tahini is bad” I rely on outside sources to keep me from inadvertently poisoning myself. But this time I decided to be brave (and avoid all meat in the preparation of my bizarre little dish- better safe than sorry. My main goal was to pick out the things that were on the verge of going bad or items I bought for specific recipes that I no longer have a purpose for. I didn’t really care what went together, if it fell into one of those two categories, it was set on the counter and added to my list. This is how I wound up with the following compilation:

  • fettuccine noodles
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • avocado (VERY ripe)
  • tomato
  • plain greek yogurt
  • lemon
  • olive oil
  • onion
  • salt and pepper
  • bean sprouts

And yes, my friends, they all wound up in the same dish. The kicker? It really didn’t taste bad- but was very under-seasoned. Could have used a couple of shrimp to round it out. I got lucky- I had just made banana bread that morning, so I didn’t have to figure out how to add in a few over-ripe bananas to the mix. Dodged that bullet!

I figured pasta was a safe bet, and could help me marry together some odd pairings. So I immediately got a pot on the stove to start boiling. It seemed pretty safe to steam the veggies, so I went that route. The sauce though, now that is where things got really interesting. I was aiming for something kind of like an avocado pesto. It really just turned into a very bizarre guacamole that had to be thinned down until it was closer to a sauce consistency. And then the bean sprouts were tossed as a garnish on top at the end- for a little bit of crunchy texture.

I can just picture the look of shock and horror on the faces of the foodies witnessing this train wreck. Behold- the final witch’s brew:

When it was time to eat, I mixed it all together so the sauce coated the noodles…and immediately realized why salt and pepper are so vital to dishes. I used to be shy and nervous in the kitchen; I loved to bake, but regular cooking was scary to me. The past two years I’ve really found my kitchen legs and started building up those skills and confidence. And while this particular recipe is not a shining example of what I am capable of, it was a lot of fun to try to make something new and relatively edible- especially since a few of those items were starting to go bad anyway. I felt like I was on the cooking channel- next time I want to try to turn it into a competition with someone else in the house. See what ideas we come up with using the same ingredients. Fun will be had by all.

Challenge #4: Photo Frenzy

Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take pictures/draw the items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, lighting and angles.

I realize that this one doesn’t exactly feel like it fits with the general theme we had going. But there was a purpose (outside of the fact that I just like to take pictures). Tech isn’t always bad, while it has the ability to deplete our creative energy, when wielded correctly it can help us reach new heights and truly soar. This challenge was meant to showcase the creative side of our gadgets.

It also doubled as a way to really enmesh yourself in the world around you. When you go out with a camera, you go out with your eyes wide open in search of the unique and inspiring. You allow yourself to open up and listen for the things that call out to you. Plus, there is a fun element when you are forced to look at things you see every day and come at them from a new angle. The whole point of this adventure was to open your eyes to the things surrounding you and really see them.

I wound up venturing into my backyard- it’s early summer, things are blooming, and it’s my first summer in this particular house, so I’m still learning what we have planted in this yard. I had a blast- and so did my dog who can’t get enough of these ninety degree days.

Okay, so this first one doesn’t really fit anywhere in the challenge, I just really like showing pictures of Link because I think he’s adorable. Even with those gray hairs- makes him look distinguished. but I digress- let’s move on to the actual pictures!

Until tomorrow, keep that creative kindling burning, my friends. We will rescue our muse soon enough.

Tech Baseline (your favorite frienemy – Rescuing the Muse)

Let’s be honest with ourselves: technology was not just created to make our lives easier. For the most part it is a profit-driven venture. There is a lot of money to be had in this field, and those who are working in it are desperate to find out how our brains work. Why? Because an obsessed population is a lucrative population. There are people out there make an entire career out of learning how to keep us hooked to the products they peddle. Can’t stop popping onto that one pointless game? Keep making your way back to Facebook with no actual purpose in mind? That’s because someone out there is really good at their job. They know how we tick, my friends- we never stood a chance.

Don’t get my wrong, I know I sound all doom and gloom here, but I actually adore my gizmos and in a lot of ways they do make my life a whole lot easier. But they are powerful and our brains haven’t fully processed how to adapt to these new changes. With this great power that we wield in our pocket comes great responsibility. Far too often there are unintended consequences to our actions, and that includes our virtual worlds. Creative thought is usually one of the first casualties of a more tech-dependent life. When you need space to breath and to think your phone won’t do you many favors. Our technology has opened a billion doors to us, but it has also chained us to this idea of immediate gratification. Want the answer to a question? Why bother attempting to puzzle it out yourself when you have that handy Google right at the tips of your fingers? A few little taps and you can fill that brief pause between appointments with games, books, conversations- literally anything that will keep you from being alone with your thoughts or facing that dreaded enemy known as boredom.

In an attempt to connect and soak up more knowledge from the world around us we have inadvertently sucked up a lot of the mystery involved. But fear not, my weary adventurers! The battle is not lost. Though it will be a grueling fight, we do still have a few tricks up our own sleeves to combat this wayward fiend.

It just so happens that screen time is perhaps one of the easier things to track. This is the one time you will be thankful that your creepy little tech toys have a tendency to track everything that you do. All that data they’re compiling is actually accessible. A lot of tech devices have jumped on board the ‘screen time’ bandwagon in response to people’s growing concerns about our addictive tendencies. In the settings on my phone is a section discreetly titled ‘digital wellbeing.’ In here it will give me graphs and stats galore. Letting me know what my daily screentime is, weekly averages, how today compares to yesterday, how many times I unlocked my phone, how much time I spent in each app- you get the idea. To curb your bad habits you can set up timers for individual apps or even enable ‘focus mode’ that will lock you out of per-designated apps for a time period of your choosing.

Not satisfied with the build-in option? Fear not- there is an entire industry out there to assist. We can overlook the irony of a tech app that is supposed to help ease your dependence on tech apps, since our mutual goals collide on this point. They all do about the same thing, though some might be a bit more detailed with what they track.

If all else fails, you can still resort to the tried-and-true paper log. Write down every time you unlock your phone, what apps you use, how long you use them. Personally I prefer a hybrid version of these two: I depend more on the accuracy of my tracking apps, but I also think it’s important to keep tabs on the timeline to discover trends. When am I most tempted to dive into my bad habits? What times of day am I most likely to start scrolling Facebook? Knowing your ‘triggers’ can help you curb your urges. Knowing how you are spending your tech time and why is vital if you want to fully embrace Creativity’s most important ally, Boredom.

My average usage is…not super great. For the past week, my daily average was dialed in at about 6 hours and 24 minutes. But to put it into perspective, that isn’t all ‘staring at the screen’ screen time. I am an avid audiobook listener- I am usually playing a book or some music when I’m getting ready, commuting to and from work, working on more menial tasks that don’t require a lot of thought. And some weeks are filled with this sort of activity. So even though my eyes aren’t glued to my screen, it still counts as screen time. I’m not saying this is a good habit to have, because at the end of the day I am still using those sound waves as a distraction that I don’t really need. But books always just felt a bit different to me.

My social media numbers have been slowly climbing the last few weeks as well. I’ve caught myself mindlessly scrolling a couple of times lately- and according to my tracker, those few minutes here and there have really started to add up to a weekly total that I’m not particularly comfortable with.

I have a bad habit of opening my phone as soon as I wake up. Granted, this is a bit unavoidable because I usually use it as an alarm clock as well, but as soon as it’s open I’ll check a couple of apps before I get out of bed. I usually peek at the news, my personal email, and occasionally Facebook before climbing out of bed to take the dog out and get the day started in earnest. Not great habits, especially when the morning is often viewed as your most creative time of the day. Your brain is fresh, all of it’s newly made connections are hotly wired and you are ready to go. Instead of cultivating that energy, I squander it with a lot of distracting fillers.

I also tend to cram a lot of small moments with ‘micro reads/scrolling.’ When I’m waiting for someone to go to the bathroom and put on their shoes before a walk, I’ll sneak in a paragraph or two from whatever kindle book I happen to be reading. There really isn’t enough time to focus on what I am doing, other than just knocking out one more page towards my book goal.

Even my bedtime routine isn’t immune to my techy tendencies. A few months ago I was dealing with the height of my anxiety issues. It was really bad- sick to my stomach, regular panic attacks, moody, inability to sleep. Nighttime was especially hard because I would catch myself in these loops of ruminating thought patterns. They would keep me awake for hours, and I had a bad habit of waking up around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and staying awake until my alarm went off. It wasn’t sustainable and I was desperate for a few moments of peace. So I started finding old audiobooks to listen to- mainly childhood favorites that provided a bit of comfort. I would listen to them when I went to bed and anytime I woke up. They were the only thing able to slowly break down the negative thought loops so I could fall back asleep. They were a game changer for me.

The issue is that now I find myself still relying on them, even though the main stressors from that time period have passed. It’s a bit of a bedtime security blanket for me; one I turn to out of habit as much as out of fear that those old thoughts will begin circling like vultures again if I can’t cast my little audible net around myself. While this seems like a fairly harmless habit- and perhaps a beneficial one- it’s been bad for my creative ventures. Nighttime was when I did a lot of my project-thinking. I would lay in bed and work out characters and scenes, play out different ideas to their conclusion and hold onto the ones that lit a spark. These midnight musings usually led to dreams surrounding my characters, which was always a great way to come up with new original content. Not having this time has been bad. Really bad. And while I’m terrified to give up my security blanket, I am desperate to reclaim my mental space.

Overall on the tech usage side of things I’m going to give myself a score of 4/10. While I am aware of my pitfalls, I know I have a lot of ground to cover to get over this addictive hump. I know I depend too much on my distractions to ease my anxiety, but there are healthier ways to go about this- ones that will give me the mental space and clarity I need to revisit the characters I left in limbo when I put my writing away.

Going Analog

I shut down the laptop, grabbed an old spiral notebook and ran outside. I lay across my back lawn soaking up the sunshine like a solar panel desperate to recharge my own batteries. It was beautiful, connecting me to something outside of my own head for the first time in ages. It’s not that I don’t go outside, but when I do- there is usually a task involved. Water the plants, take the dog potty (not in the same place), take him for a walk: I am not often there just to be there. I forgot what I was missing- the feeling of the sun dancing across warm skin, the sound of the birds singing that rivaled the neighborhood kids yelling and laughing. I hadn’t noticed the nest in the back tree, or the way a mole actually ran along the perimeter of my yard (the only part that is actually landscaped), or how he very obviously smacked headfirst into a decorate rock before taking a detour out (ha!). I had missed out on the bunnies and caterpillars nibbling on the plants in the back corner, or the way the vines were creeping under the fence. Not to mention the plethora of toys my dog had artfully scattered across the lawn. Interested in a rubber chicken leg? Or perhaps a squeaky bottle of fake beer will strike your fancy? There is also, of course, the heart shaped ball for the classical-lovers in the room. I miss a lot when hiding in my indoor cocoon, trapped in my own head, so lost in my daily trivialities that I never let myself feel how small I really am in this world. Or how connected I actually am to it.

I found my baseline and discovered how much I use my tech as a crutch. So I’m trying something new and going analog as much as possible. While I do still have to type out my posts right here on the laptop, I am going to start them freehand. There is something liberating about putting pen to paper, but it takes a different type of thinking.

I forgot what it felt like to put actual pen to paper. I am used to trying to type everything so quickly that I overlooked that special vibe you get when you can’t type out x number of words in a minute. Suddenly every letter requires a bit more effort. It forces you to be more concise with your choices, to weed out the unnecessary. It’s like turning off a highway and hitting the back country roads. You notice your surroundings and relax into the turns instead of incessantly racing on ahead.

I am going to attempt to do this in a few areas of my life, not just my writing. I put timers on my apps so they’ll be disabled once I hit my time limit. I’m experimenting with new daily routines so I have specific times to do certain tasks like check my email and read the news. I’m limiting my audio time (though this one may involve a bit more weaning, given the anxiety issues tethered to it). When I do listen, I am forcing myself to pause for at least 10 minutes at the end of each chapter to really think over what I listened to- anything new I learned, stylistic things that I liked or dislikes, etc. so far I’ve noticed that I seem to be retaining more when I slow down to enjoy it and ponder over it.

I am also trying to play a little game to disrupt the interruptions. If my phone buzzes with a notification while I am in the middle of a task, I have to wait until I am done before I can look at it. This way my brain doesn’t have to divert every three seconds. It’s harder than it sounds to ignore the pull, but once you commit to it, it’s not so bad.

Side-Quests

  • Track your tech time (use built in resources, find an app you like, or get a nice little notebook to write it all down in)
  • Set a timer on apps you want to use less
  • Delete apps you don’t use/don’t want to use anymore
  • Change your notification settings so less junk charges in at you
  • Look for productivity apps to help you stay focused if/when you do what to use your tech (my personal favorite is called ‘forest’- you set a time you want to work uninterrupted, and it will grow a tree in that amount of time. If you cave and start zooming around on your phone, your tree will start to die. The longer you use it the more trees you will get- pretty soon you will have a whole forest as a testament to how hard you worked towards your goal. If you upgrade to the pro version, you can have real trees planted for your work). There are a ton out there though, so feel free to experiment yourself.
  • Disrupt the interruptions: don’t immediately react to notifications. Finish the task you are working on before allowing yourself to check it
  • Keep your phone away at specific times: when on a walk or eating with someone, etc – get used to it not being your third arm
  • Don’t instantly google a question, try to work out the answer yourself or ask someone
  • Go analog- start writing by hand, read more paperbacks, make your grocery list on paper, freehand your drawings, play physical games with people in your house, go outside at night instead of watching TV

Creativity Component

To keep ourselves busy while we check-in to our digital detox, some creativity challenges are in order. The ones below are all riffs on the detox challenge, and they cover a variety of different avenues in our unique realm. Try one of them, all of them, or make your own inspired by them.

  • Make your tech monster: draw it out on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition- any form that speaks to you
    • Giving your demons a face can make them a little less scary sometimes. I learned this when I started drawing my anxiety monster- suddenly he wasn’t something to be feared, he was a creature perched on my shoulder that I needed to find a symbiosis with instead of fighting and being angry that he existed at all.
  • Write a short story (by hand) about a robot
    • Imagining a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well (if you are interested in short animation, Netflix has ‘Love Death + Robots’- it’s full of very unique ideas, and some of them explore this concept of tech in our lives and where the human race is headed in general)
  • Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed for ideas. It doesn’t have to taste or look good
    • The point here is to think of these ingredients outside of the wheelhouse you are accustomed to. Sometimes we rely too much on gaining inspiration from the internet. This challenge is about trusting your instincts and seeing what happens. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be fun or creative. After all, that spinach is about to go bad anyway, might as well have a little fun with it
  • Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take picture/draw a picture of items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, the lighting, the angles.
    • I know- this one involves using a little bit of tech. The point here is to use your techy powers for good, not evil. Use it to inspire yourself, because not all tech is bad for you.
    • Try to gain new perspectives on things you see every day
    • When you struggle to shift into a fully present mindset, it can help to ease into it. Stepping out your front door with the intention of finding cool new inspiration for some pictures will force you to really look at the scenery around you with an eye for what you find intriguing and unusual

Bored to Brilliant (When Technology Turns Bad – Saving the Muse)

I’ve been here too long, too comfortable in the daily grind of building up my escape plan to actually take the next step towards getting off this forsaken island. The gods are laughing at me now, sure I will waste away here, surrounded by my thousands of excuses. The raft is ready, unless I plan on building a cruise liner on this place: it is time to go.

Last night I decided: now or never. Stay here and be content with this solitary life, or step out into the ocean tomorrow and embark on this daring adventure to rescue the muse. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep, troubled by the changes the next day would bring. I had been comfortable here; but isn’t that the trick of this little island? There is a familiarity in it’s quaint regularity. Same routine day in and day out, nothing to cause one moment to be distinct from another. It was a never-ending slog of day to day activity that never really got you anywhere except older. The fire burnt down to embers as I tossed and turned through the night, wondering if I still had the courage needed for the road ahead. After all, this wasn’t my first attempt. No, far from it. I was too familiar with the path I was attempting to walk.

The sun began to creep over the horizon, brushing the sky with vibrant oranges that faded into pink. I sit, blearily eyeing my surroundings. The fire had burnt down to embers in the night. I douse the coals, though there is little left on this island for the flames to dance with. I used up too many of the resources to build the puny little boat I expect to set sail on. I’ve been toiling away for weeks now, lashing together every bit of driftwood I could find with long ropes of braided sea grass. The vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as a castaway in this dangerous sea, I could hardly expect more. Everyday as I toiled away I would imagine my daring Muse finding a way of rescuing herself and coming back to me. But alas, I mist be the hero of this story.

I take a deep breath, look out at my island one last time, and step onto my tiny craft. Pushing out into the roiling waters that have surrounded me for ages, stealing my motivation and locking me 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

You were probably wondering if you would see me here again, of it I had slipped away, lost to this challenge, never to escape my tiny island, forever trapped by the unforgiving sea of distractions. Sometimes the hero takes a bit longer than you could imagine to get themselves pulled together enough to embark on their adventure. After all, if Gandalf had not been there to push Bilbo out of the Shire, he probably would have been content spending the rest of his life practicing smoke rings on his front porch. It can be far trickier when you must act as your own Gandalf.

I did get lost in it a bit; as someone who struggles with anxiety, the act of focusing on mindfulness can be a bit more complex than one would hope. This is perhaps why I have spent the past year regularly keeping self-help books in my weekly book rotations.

I won’t say that I regret the time I spent: I learned some new valuable tricks that will help me moving forward. I have some arrows in my quiver that I did not possess a year ago. I found some new hobbies (like the little garden I have slowly blooming) that are helping me disentangle myself from the daily stress that usually keep me locked in my less-than-helpful mental cycles.

I can’t say that I didn’t slip back a few times. Between some work developments and an attempted burglary (Oh don’t worry- I’ll hit more on that later. I would never keep you hanging on something as intriguing as an attempted burglary), I found myself slipping back into some old stressful habits. For me personally, the mindfulness monsters will never be completely slayed. They may be captured or tamed, but I will never be completely done fighting them. But that doesn’t mean I need to stay on this island forever trying to slice the heads off this hydra. No, the beast has shrunk and I can continue on my trek.

So what is next for the grand adventurers now that we are finally attempting to escape this prison we have created? Now that we are attempting to break free of the old habits that left us stranded on this spit of land to begin with? It’s time to begin our battle with the distractions that keep us from moving forward towards our goals.

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 an overly-caffeinated creator, 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.

Getting Down and Dirty (gardening and anxiety)

Perhaps the mindfulness portion of my creativity challenge is stretching on a bit longer than I had originally planned. We should be diving into the ‘bored to brilliant’ portion shortly, but I think there is still some ground here that we need to till before we move along- after all, these two topics are flip sides of the same coin. Once we have one managed, the other will slip easily into place.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have struggled with anxiety for just about my entire life. And I don’t mean the kind you get right before you have to make a big presentation. I mean the kind that grows and duplicates until it starts to impact my daily functions. Phone calls can turn into a Herculean feat requiring a pep talk, a little bit of rehearsing, and (hopefully) a reward after a job well done. I can keep myself up half the night when I know I will be driving somewhere new in the morning, convinced that I will somehow get myself irreversibly lost, even with GPS. I have to map things out, I need to know step by step what to expect; this is why I always appear overly prepared and why I ask a lot of very detailed questions- my brain demands the answers that will allow me to visualize the game plan.

Over the past year my anxiety skyrocketed (hmm, couldn’t even begin to sort out why), and I found myself struggling even more. Sleepless nights, sick to my stomach, migraines, exhaustion and insomnia existing side by side. I struggled, to say the least. Once you start rolling down that hill it is very difficult to slow the momentum and climb your way back up.

And this, my dear adventurers, is why I find myself enamored by this particular phase of the creativity challenge. Finding that sliver of peace I had craved for so long became more then a goal, it was damn near an obsession. I’ve tried most of the tricks people suggest: meditation, yoga, deep breathing, sensory tricks. And while all of these options carry their own benefits, it didn’t get to the core of my personal issue. Sure, they could help me calm down once I’d already started amping up- but was there anything that could get me out of my own head long enough to slow my downward spiral right in it’s tracks?

And that’s where I landed on this challenge: attempting to discovery new ways to curb my anxiety and de-stress my brain, ones that I hadn’t attempted before. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to find much. After all, I had spent years meandering down this particular path of self-discovery, it just didn’t seem likely that I would find a magical little unicorn answer to solve my wayward woes. Dang, was I wrong.

Growing up I always had a deep love of nature and anything plant-related, though my thumbs are far from green. The first house I ever lived at was a pretty large plot of land next to my grandparent’s cattle farm. We had a little garden that my mom took care of, and we spent our days climbing the fruit trees scattered across our yard: apple, cherry, pear, and a few walnut trees- it was heaven. We moved when I was still in elementary school, traded in those fruit trees for wild country woods. It was the kind of place where a bear could stroll into your garage on accident and you could follow the paths the deer made through the underbrush. Perhaps this is why I’ve always felt most at home in nature.

I guess gardening wasn’t a big leap to make after that, though this is the first year I decided to really jump in. Sure, I’ve cared for my share of desk and house plants; I’ve got my main four that have moved between offices and houses with me for years: Bonnie, Clyde, Fifel and Travolta have been faithful companions even when I didn’t deserve them. But outside of these beauties, I haven’t had much space in nature to call my own. This year was the first one where I had a tiny patch of land to call my own, and while it is pretty tiny, its still mine and I get to decide how to play in it.

I honestly had no idea how relaxing a garden would be until I started planting. There was something deeply soothing about the entire process. I have a really bad habit of getting caught up in my own head, lost in my thoughts that lead me down rabbit holes best left alone. So the act of putting my hands in the dirt and caring for something else was liberating: the physical outlet pulled me out of my cartwheeling thoughts and grounded me in the present moment.

Gardening and the Brain Game

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who felt a breath of fresh air invigorate my soul as I dug my hands into the dirt. In UK study involving 317 people who took part in table-top gardening sessions 80% self-reported better mental health resulting from the work, while 93% said that they had improved confidence and motivation. When asking gardeners why they partook of that particular activity, the second most common answer was for mental health (the top response was for recreation). The benefits have been seen so broadly that there are now horticulture therapy programs where you garden for the specific benefit of your own mental health.

Many of these therapy programs have relied on studies that indicate that the activity can reduce depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms, alleviate symptoms of dementia, increase the ability to concentrate and engage, and reduce reliance on medication and self-harming behaviors. While it may sound a bit strange at first, there is science to back it all up. Studies have shown that gardening is linked to mental clarity, as well as the promotion of problem solving, learning, and sensory awareness. The variety of brain functions you have to employ while working with your leafy compatriots acts as an exercise routine for your brain itself, keeping it healthy and strong.

Accepting the Imperfect

Those who have been gardening long term have also noted that it allows you to practice acceptance: often what you expect and what you get when gardening can be two very different things. You can do everything right, and sometimes those carrots still won’t grow. This is an easier and safer way to dip your toes into acceptance and, to a degree, grief at the idea of missed expectations. It also forced you to move past perfectionism: while mother nature is beautiful, she is far from perfect.

Growing a Mindset (and a few cucumbers)

If you’ve ever read a self-help book, you have probably heard the term ‘growth mindset.’ When you are living with a fixed mindset you are resistant to change. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you are always learning. Failures are not viewed as defeats; they are lessons that you can pick up and use later on for improvement. Those who partake in tricky hobbies like gardening have an easier time developing a growth mindset because, let’s be honest, there is always something to learn and improve on. Most early gardeners initially indicate that they feel a degree of stress when they run into failures because they don’t feel like they’re doing things right: but this feeling is very quickly followed by a bit of research, connecting with others, and developing a new play going forward. Suddenly the failure isn’t the end of an entire hobby, it is merely a little speed bump on the road towards delicious asparagus.

Creating Community (and cauliflower)

I always envisioned gardening as a solitary endeavor: you sit there outside with your little watering can and your beds and get to work. And while that can sometimes be the way the cookie crumbles, there is actually a large and thriving community centered around this all-consuming hobby. Even as a novice I have been welcomed with open arms by anyone and everyone I know who dabbles in the craft. A two minute conversation during a break at work had led to tips on cultivating tomatoes, an offer of free raspberry bushes, the best type of cucumbers to grow, how to make hops good enough to use in your own home brews. And that’s just after a week enmeshed in this little world.

The community you are able to build around something you collectively love is perhaps one of the strongest connections you can make. There is something about that spark of passion that inspires kinship, even amongst vastly different individuals. This type of interpersonal connection is crucial for building up a strong mental health base. Having a support system you can fall back on and talk to greatly reduces stress levels, giving you the room to vent when you feel like a tea pot ready to scream from the pressure.

Aligning with Nature

Not only does gardening connect you to other people, but it gives you a direct vein straight into our natural world. There is something deeply humbling about feeling that vibrant connect to other living things and viewing yourself as an integral member of this crazy world of ours. And not just a member of it, but someone who is actively doing your part to make it a little better, healthier and greener. This will easily help boost confidence and motivation all on it’s own. Two key ingredients for optimal mental health.

Having meaningful work to focus on provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. It increases optimism, resiliency, hope, joy, happiness, and satisfaction. Finding meaning in your life is considered to be vitally important to your health. If you’ve even known of a person who retires and has their health immediately begin to decline: one of the reasons often discussed stems from this lack of purpose. Your mind and body crave a meaningful life- and meaning can be derived from anything. You don’t have to be the President of the United States to have a purpose; sometimes it can be as simple of being the person who waters the plants that you love. They depend on you to live; in my book, that will always be vitally important work.

Getting Fit by the Pumpkins

Plus: it’s a physical activity, which means it’s good for your body too. And when you look at this from a stress-reduction standpoint: physical activity is one way that you can complete your stress cycle. The act of moving calmly and methodically through the daily steps involved can convince your brain that the danger has passed and it’s okay to move on. Not to mention: if you are growing delicious and healthy things, you are more likely to consume delicious and healthy things.

Physical activity all on its own changes your brain chemistry. It releases endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (the body’s natural stress-reliever), while increasing blood flow to the brain (providing it with more oxygen and nutrients). Not only that, but it actually decreases levels of negative chemicals in your brain, while forcing your physiological systems (these are all involved in the typical stress response) to communicate and work more closely together; once again, completing that pesky stress cycle.

A Mental Outlet Amongst the Plants

But for me, the biggest selling point wasn’t necessarily in the act of planting itself: sure, that did do a lot to ground me. But yoga was also capable of grounding me in my body. So what was different about this activity that the five hundred others I’ve tried over and over again the past few years? It’s simple: gardening was able to give my brain an outlet to focus on even when I wasn’t actually outside with my plants.

You see, I tend to ruminate. That’s one of the things that makes my particular flavor of anxiety so difficult for me to manage. I can get manage myself in a stressful moment, but my brain will flip back to that unlucky event over and over again once it’s passed. I will play it on repeat like a toddler watching Scooby Doo (or whatever toddlers are obsessed with these days). Gardening, however, required a lot of creative planning, plotting, and research on my part. I’ve been checking out library books, watching videos, looking up articles; all in an effort to learn more to make me a better plant mama to my new little charges. Not only that, but every single plant has slightly different needs: this means that the research is never really over. Once I figure out how tomatoes tick, I can move on to broccolini or pear trees.

I’ve also had to get creative to solve my space-problem. My yard is quite small and the little bit that I do have is somewhat landscaped in a way that I really enjoy to look at. So the trick became: how to maintain a garden when I am limited on space? This was a big hurdle requiring a lot of creative energy to problem solve. This required more focus, a tad more research, and connecting with others to get their input and opinions about the things they have tried. My current answer: container and vertical gardening. Which requires an entirely different skill set than in-ground traditional gardening. So guess who found even more fodder to focus her mental energy on?

My brain has been so busy sorting and learning about my new project that I have simply forgotten to think about my usual stressors. I don’t have time. I can’t sacrifice the bandwidth it requires to ruminate and relive uncomfortable moments- not when I have tomatoes that desperately need to sprout and water schedules to sort out. And the best part? It really didn’t take much effort at all on my part to mentally switch gears. The transition has been fluid, and that alone is insanely exciting to someone like me who has spent years trying to figure out how to turn off that anxious piece of my brain when it wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. It’s been game-changing. And while I know the novelty might eventually wear off, right now: it’s the best trick I’ve tried, and I’m not going to lie, I am feeling pretty good.

So ultimately, for me- my garden gave me the gift of mindfulness in the sense that it carried my mind away from it’s most painful moments and gave it a directed focus on a hobby that makes me feel good for even attempting. So there you have it, my friends- finding peace in the places that you least expect. I told you: the creativity portion of the challenge is brewing just below the surface: we are dipping our toes into these waters without even realizing. What other brilliant clues to our own happiness do have hidden just below the surface of our own consciousness?

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Try it Your Omm Way (Meditation and the Muse)

I have tried a plethora of mindfulness techniques on and off for years. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the anxious thoughts continually pelting my brain weren’t what others would consider ‘normal.’ And from the moment I was aware that my anxiety was impacting my daily living; I’ve tried cajoling it and taming it, befriending it and understanding it. It’s the shadow that follows me throughout the day.

I’ve desperately tried to figure out why my brain is wired the way that it is, and why that could be a good thing. There have been interesting studies and countless books that attempt to dive into the role that mental illness might play in society. I specifically remember a study of chimps that struck a chord. In every chimp troop there were a small number of anxious and/or depressed chimps that typically kept themselves to the outskirts of their social world. As an anxious little introvert myself, I felt a kinship with this little band of misfits. As part of the experiment, the misfits were removed from the group. And do you know what happened? Within six months the remainder of the pack had died. When they looked into the cause, it was actually relatively simple: the anxious creatures would regularly sleep on the edges of the group. Being natural bundles of nerves, they were overly sensitive and vigilant when monitoring the world around them. Little things had the ability to disturb them so they would call out- waking up the rest of the band so that they could escape to safety. Without the anxious within their numbers, the warning system of the pack was disabled. Now, there are interesting studies that have also been done on human leaders who have exhibited symptoms of non-traditional neural systems, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make (not today at least, trust me- this will be coming back up in the future).

The point I am trying to make in a roundabout way: there is a place for the neurodiverse among us. However, knowing that the brain functions you have lived with (and fairly regularly suffered through) have a place- that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with them on a regular basis. Great, I am a human warning bell for the rest of society. Now can I please just be able to answer a phone without that jangling jolt of panic? Sometimes you need a break, a coping mechanism to dial down and ‘tune’ your anxiety/stress to a more manageable level.

There are a lot of different ways to go about this: as I’ve mentioned before, food and diet are an amazing place to start. Physical movement and exercise and really complete your stress cycle so you can wind down. Little creative projects that don’t require excessive thought are good too. But today I want to focus on a classic: the tried and true art of meditation. Something so simple it feels damn near impossible at times.

Personally, I prefer to indulge in a few short meditations throughout the day- I don’t have the patience to attempt meditation for longer than a couple of minutes. That is my sweet spot: anything more than that and the struggle to control my thoughts starts to outweigh the potential reward. Perhaps someday I’ll graduate to a higher class of meditators, but for now- I celebrate every small win.

Photo by Eternal Happiness on Pexels.com

Which Side of the Road do you Walk on?

To start off, it’s important to note that there are a lot of different ways to meditate, each of them stemming from a slightly different history and with a variety of end results in mind. But the two major camps that science has focused on are ‘focused attention’ and ‘open-monitoring meditation.’ Focused attention is when you focus on one specific thing (usually this is your breathing), while Open-Monitoring is when you pay attention to all the things going on around you without reacting to them. According to scientists, open-monitoring has more of a noticeable impact on creativity than the focused type.

The primary elements of most meditation practices involve focused attention, relaxed breathing, a quiet setting, a comfortable position and an open attitude. These, however, are not requirements- though they will make the first few attempts a bit easier to manage as you start out with your own practice. Keep in mind, there is really no right or wrong way to meditate; focusing too much on perfection will just increase your stress, which is the exact opposite of what you want to accomplish. The ultimate goal is to hone in your attention and quite the cacophony of thoughts that poke and prod at you every day.

The changes that take place in your brain during and after meditation can actually be visibly seem when using fMRI scans. Your brain’s overall processing speed drops from a sprint to a springtime mosey. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and self-conscious awareness slows way down. The Parietal lobe, which processes sensory information about the world around you, follow suite and drifts towards sleep. The thalamus, which generally acts as a gatekeeper for your senses, switches it’s focus toward so it’s pointed inward, which reduces the incoming stimulation you receive. And, if that all wasn’t enough to give you the comforting glow of mental stillness, the reticular formation, which receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, soothes itself and dials back it’s arousal. Ah yes, sweet relief- that last one is the reason why I come to the party. Fun fact: the reason why exercise is right up there with meditation in terms of mental health benefits is because to actually has the exact same impact on the brain as meditation. Funny how stillness and motion are cut from the same cloth. So take comfort, my zoomy friends who don’t like to sit still: you can reach these same goals while bouncing and running around.

What It Means

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, I can throw biology lingo out all day, and that isn’t going to help anyone decide if they really want to give meditation a try. But the health impacts (and the benefits for your brain and creative projects) are not easily ignored. So what can you expect to get out of the deal, should you choose to accept this particular adventure?

When you boil it down, meditation is really all about focus and training yourself to be aware of when your mind starts to wander. This little exercise routine for the brain trains that beautiful noodle of yours to more easily focus in other areas of your life. This is a huge deal for humans, considering our attention span has reportedly shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8. That’s right, we are clocking in right behind the guppy (fish inch us out with 9 whole seconds). The research shows that those who meditate are able to weed out and ignore potential distractions far more easily than those who didn’t . This increases productivity and reduces the stress and frustration that come with constant interruptions.

For people like me, there is also the proven fact that anxiety and stress are reduced as well. The science behind this one is actually pretty interesting. You see, your brain is a bit like a highway, creating it’s own neural pathways. When a roadblock appears for whatever reason, perhaps through injury or illness, your brain will reroute those neural links to get around the problem area. And much like our roads, some of them are traveled more than others. Think of those most well-used pathways as highways where your neurons can fly through without a moment’s hesitation. But not all of these pathways are ones that you really want to maintain and build up. Some of our neural connections are wired more for stress; in particular, the medial prefrontal cortex, nicknamed the ‘Me center.’ This area is responsible for processing information relating to ourselves and our experiences. It takes outside stimuli (like a scary event) and sets off a chain reaction that leaves you with some pretty strong negative feelings. Meditation, however, helps loosen up these pathways; dropping your 5 lane stress highway down to a more manageable 2 lane country road. This allows us enough internal distance to view our experiences in a more rational manner, which is kind of the kryptonite of irrational anxiety thought patterns. The more you loosen these pathways, the less they become the default road to travel, so to speak.

Studies have also shown a marked increase in empathy and compassion with people who meditate versus people who don’t. This is good for creative projects in which it’s important to be able to see the world from a multitude of perspectives. Not only that, but empathy and compassion just help build better people and societies in general. I mean, one glance at the news will tell you what we are deeply missing in our world- and it’s not just cow bells.

Just in case you thought it couldn’t get any better, can I perhaps offer up some improved memory? That’s right, studies have shown that people who meditate are able to recall information much faster than those who dont. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. What this translates to is more positive emotions, improved emotional stability and increased focus in daily living. And the cherry on top of this bright little sundae? Studies are showing that meditation also seems to slow down the impacts of aging on our brains.

Now What?

Okay, so now you know what amazing benefits you’ve been depriving yourself of while avoiding a healthy dose of mindful meditation. So now what? Is this where I stop to give you step by step instructions on how to reap all the beautiful benefits I’ve been touting? Alas, it is not. Truthfully, I was originally planning on writing out a few basic steps to start off a meditation practice. but that was before I realized what a wide variety of options and styles exist in the world. Why would I paint you into the box I started with when you can easily branch out and explore this wonderful new world of possibilities all on your own? I’ve dabbled a few of the basics- my personal favorite is still a walking meditation that involves a lot of focused breathing techniques. But then I have a post-yoga cool down in child’s pose that never fails to get me into the perfect headspace for mindful relaxation (and occasionally a short little nap on the yoga mat). Just a few online searches or downloading a free app or two can open you to a whole new world of meditative possibilities, and I find that far more exciting than a boring old list at the bottom of a blog.

The bottom line: what could it hurt to try? Give it two minutes twice a day for a week and see where you wind up. After all, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Happy hunting for creative mindfulness, my friends. The journey is only just beginning. So go ahead, go find your om way and embrace it fully.

Side Quest, Week 2: Take a Picture, it’ll Last Longer

So last week I started playing around with creative side quests to go with our “Rescue the Muse Challenge.” For anyone who saw the fruits of that labor, you are by now well acquainted with the fact that I am no artist. But being ‘great’ wasn’t the purpose: nope, I am posting my less-than-stellar drawings as a way of overcoming my inner critic, fighting against my desire for perfection, and as a way to just have fun in the moments I’m creating.

Last week I made the startling realization that I don’t have to be ‘good’ at a particular type of creative medium in order to feel the overwhelming strength of emotions that the arts inspire. I have always known how to ride the emotional wave of words; that has been my venue of choice for as long as I can remember. I have always been able to feel very deeply when patching syllables together. I believed that my soul was written, it was stitched together with paragraphs and epitaphs. I had no idea that creating a bad pencil-drawn sketch could translate a portion of my heart in the same way that a page of words could. I discovered that my soul is not just written; it is doodled, painted and knit together. We are more than one thing; we are more that the one thing that we are ‘good’ at.

My personal success last week inspired me to add a new layer to this little parfait. While I am going to continue on with my daily art challenges (perhaps eventually I’ll add some structure to them, but right now- they’re mainly going to be doodles and thoughts), I wanted to up the ante a little bit and see what else I can learn about myself. Stepping into the world of photography seemed like the perfect segue.

With both writing and art, perspective and a point of view are vitally important. Unfortunately, as humans, we tend to categorize the things that we see and stick a generic label on them: house, building, tree, forest, bird. It’s a time-saving technique that we evolved to help us spot and communicate danger. It has helped us make sense of the world around us without getting overwhelmed by the details. This week: I want to swim in the nitty-gritty, overwhelming world of details. I want to notice all of the things that we tend to take for granted; I want to see my usual surroundings with fresh eyes and and a crooked perspective.

When was the last time I actually saw the scene outside my front window? Not just looked at it, but truly saw it? How long since I noticed the arching branches of the tree in my yard? Or the gnarled bark that the squirrels cling so easily to? When was the last time I payed attention to the divot in the pavement in front of my driveway, or the oversized plastic owl perched on the fence of my neighbor’s garden?

It’s important to slow down and take the time to notice the little details that we have grown numb to. Every now and then you need to walk through your neighborhood as though you just moved in. Or wander around your backyard like an alien trying to sort out the flora and fauna of this new world. On occasion you should wander your own house and truly look at the details that make up your home. You need to run your fingers over the scratches on the doorframe from that time you tried to move the couch. Or eyeball the texture of your ceiling and imagine what it would be like if the world flipped upside down that was suddenly your floor.

Perhaps the easiest way to notice these things: take pictures of them in unusual way. Get up so close to your lamp that you can’t tell what it is and snap that shot. Zoom in on the bark of the tree with the intent of sketching it out later. Capture a photo of the precious nose-art your little critter left on the front window when they were waiting for you to come home (or staring suspiciously at the mailman). Peer into the distorted reflection that shines back from your coffee pot or toaster while your yummy things are warming up (bonus points if you draw these images with their sausage fingers and point pin-heads). Zoom in on the knit of your favorite quilt or the stitches that make up your winter hat.

Try to look at the world from a new angle, take pictures upside down, toy with the lighting- make creepy shadows crawl across your living room floor and capture them. Explore the world and acknowledge how it can make you feel like a larger-than-life giant or a tiny and insignificant little creature.

Take pictures of the everyday moments that seem so routine: a snapshot of your breakfast as it sits alone on the counter, steam rising from scrambled eggs. Walk downtown and note the graffiti and stickers plastered to the back of the stop signs. Throw your face masks in a pile and snap shots of them from different angles; hang them from an impromptu clothesline in your backyard and watch the wind dance with them. Take a photo of something unmistakably modern and don it in a black and white filter for contrast. Set up your figurines into odd poses and start snapping shots like you’re directing their next movie. Play with the pictures. Try to see all of the things that you never noticed, and if you feel brave: sketch them out to see what happens.

As a side note:

While these weekly challenges are directly related to our Rescuing the Muse Quest, I’ve started separating them in the posts simply because I was worried they would drag on a little too long if I kept them all bunched up together. For anyone who has been following along with the Muse storyline, please let me know how you feel about this. I love getting new suggestions on how to make all of this run smoothly, because lets face it: I still feel pretty new to the whole thing, even though I’ve been blogging on and off for years.

Shadow Monsters (Rescuing the Muse, Part 7)

When I wake, I have the sense that it is morning, though I can’t see much light beyond the distant canopy of trees. Everything is covered in that twilight gloom that makes it difficult to gather much detail from your surroundings. I peer awkwardly around me as I sit by the cold embers of my fire and wait for the world to grow brighter as I nibble on a measly breakfast. I am already hungry, but I know I must be careful with my supplies.

The longer I wait, the more the heavy realization sinks in that the world won’t be getting much brighter today. I sigh and sling my pack over my shoulder as I carefully make my way farther down the dirt path. This will have to do for today. I set a decent pace as I wander along the trail, forcing my mind to stay on the task at hand. It isn’t until late morning when the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand on end and I get that needling feeling that someone is watching me. I cast my eyes into the woods surrounding me, hoping I can catch a glimpse of my hidden companion. But the trees remain still, and my stalker stays hidden in the shadows.

There is a whisper about me, though when I stop to listen I cannot make out any words. Is it the wind? Is my mind playing tricks on me? I have only been away from the village for a short time, surely I am not already imagining things. Is that the secret of these treacherous woods that the locals would not tell me: does everyone who steps foot in here go mad?

“What makes you think the woods have anything to do with it? Surely all those people were mad before they set foot in these lands,” a voice whispered in my ear, stretching out the s’s like a snake. I nearly jumped out of my skin as I turned in a quick circle, arm outstretched to catch my foe. But nothing was there, my fingers passed through mere air. A soft chuckle met my ears as I stood frozen in place.

“Oh, my dear child, tut, tut, there is no catching what you cannot see. Surely you know that by now,” it crowed from my left. I stared intently at the spot, waiting for something, anything- a flash of movement. But there was only a shadow across the path, a dark and murky splotch of air in the empty void between myself and the distant trees.

My blood turned to ice with dawning realization. I had heard of these phantoms before, these dangerous creatures that pass through the world unseen. They were the Shadows that sang songs of despair and disdain int our ears. They reveled in self-loathing, luxuriated in anxiety and hate. They were the monsters that were impossible to fight, the ones that found a crumb of weakness within the soul and held tightly to it. They were the worst nightmares and the most hidden of fears.

The shadow cackled softly, a low growling sound, “Ah, so I see you have heard of me,” he responded, though I had never uttered a word. These creatures were dangerous for this very fact: you could not fool them because they could instinctively feel the nature of your thoughts, could read the quickening pulse of your heart. They could taste your fear, and knew your sadness. They could become as much a part of you as your big toe.

“You, my sweet adventurer are an apple ripe for the picking. So brave of you to wander willingly into my home. Tell me, young fly, what is it like to finally meet a spider? Can you feel my web ensnaring you?” Every syllable dripped with barely concealed mirth as he gloated.

How do you fight a monster that can see inside your soul? How do you combat something that knows every secret you harbor in your heart? How do you move forward when the fear they inspire leaves your muscles rigid and unmoving? “You can’t,” the shadow whispered, closer now.

They say that for a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must wrap itself up tightly in a cocoon and come completely undone. It dissolves it’s very cells so that it can reorganize them into a new form. This transformation cannot be easy, and it certainly doesn’t sound pain free. It is not the quiet little nap we envision; but change never is. There is action roiling below the surface that many could never even fathom with a cursory glance. I often wonder if the caterpillar knows what is in store for it when it feels that urge to wrap itself up tightly in the safe confines of its cocoon. When it enters that darkness, does it know what it will being undoing? Does it know what it will become?

Every single one of us carries a shadow self: the darkness within our cocoon that we must learn to embrace and work through if we ever wish to grow into something more than what we are. It is one of the hardest battles we will ever wage, primarily because we often don’t recognize what we are fighting. These shadow voices are so deeply ingrained in who we are that we often can’t differentiate their voices from our own. To fight these shadows we must recognize them and pull them into the light. We must scrape away at the years of detritus until we are able to unearth the core of their existence. At the heart of every shadow is a seed, a core belief that we have struggled with repeatedly over the years until they grew far too complex for us to simply manage.

It is far easier to recognize the symptoms of our monster than to acknowledge what it truly is. For me, my monster tended to present itself in stuttering steps and lack of follow-through. It was found in good intentions that were never acted upon or not fully invested in. It was the big dreams that I shied away from when action was required. It was the career I feel into thirteen years ago and never left, even though the passion started to ebb. It was the promotions I applied for and got, even though I knew they were a mistake- but I thought I was supposed to want them. It was the schooling I put on pause when I was dealing with medical issue, but never returned to after they resolved. It’s the novels I never sent to publishers, the way I still hide my computer screen from my partner, even though I’ll send these words out into the ether. It’s the way I cling to a 9 to 5 job because it feels secure, even though my heart pulls me somewhere else. It’s in the way I shrug my shoulders and say “I’ll go back to school when I know what I want to do with my life,” when the truth is: I’ve known my direction for a long time, I just never feel comfortable saying it out loud. Over and over again I have battled with these inner demons without realized that they are all the same monster, just wearing different masks.

The core of my shadow is a lack of confidence in my own abilities, it is a fear of failing. I have never once taken the risk of betting on myself, even though I will go all-in for anyone else. I care too much what other people think, and I always have. I question my instincts and my dreams over and over again until I talk myself out of them. I was a girl with goals and hopes that were larger than life. And in theory I believed in them; at least, I thought I believed in them. But when it came to action, I shied away. I turned down a different road that was paved and well-lit even though I could feel the winds calling me across that other field and through the brambles. I knew I wasn’t living my authentic life, I was settling for a safe life. I convinced myself that the life I was living was good enough; and on those days when it wasn’t, I told myself that it was okay- this was only temporary, and I would figure it out. But I knew all along that those were just words with no backbone.

I don’t know where this fear came from. I’m sure a really good therapist could help me figure it out, but alas- that is another step that I have always hesitated to take (even though I strongly encourage everyone to see one because mental health is important). It’s like I’m afraid of confirming my worst fears. If don’t try, then I can keep dreaming and I don’t have to face the fact that I’m not good enough. I don’t have to worry that I quit a great job to follow a dream that died and left me…where? What is the worst that could happen? What am I afraid of?

For once let’s be honest. I am not weak. No, every time my back has been pushed to the wall, I have proven that I could fight. I am capable of pushing myself beyond the limits I thought I had. When my world cracked and swallowed me whole, I climbed back out all on my own. I kept living when every fiber inside of me demanded to know why I should even bother. I walked through my own personal hell and came out the other side carrying buckets of water for those still engulfed in the flames. I am afraid of failing, and yet every time I was forced to give it my all: I succeeded. When my world crumbled below my feet, I rebuilt beautiful things in that rubble. This fear that I have: this fear of not being good enough, of not being strong enough: it’s unfounded. It’s a lie. It’s a whisper that the shadows desperately want me to believe because it’s the only foothold they have.

To confront your shadow, you must name it. You must stare it straight in the eyes and do whatever it is warning you against. If it’s telling you not to create because you might not be any good- do it anyway. And even if it is awful: stick that work in a frame and place it on your desk with pride. Because it is not just your lopsided attempt of a hedgehog drawing: no, it’s the proverbial sword that you used to slay your monster.

The shadow will not go away overnight. It will be with you for days, weeks, perhaps years. But it will not always control you if you continue to push back against every inch of ground it tries to take. Sometimes all you will gain are tiny steps: actually, it is pretty much always tiny steps. You are going to fight the shadow with a matchstick and not a flamethrower, but my dear, you will win if you are persistent. You will shine that light on every square inch of the monster until he has no where else he can hide.

My matches? They’re small- but they’re working. I started my silly art challenge last week. I am drawing not-so-stellar pictures that I am sharing with you right here on the internet where literally anyone can find them for the rest of eternity. And as cavalier as I like I to act when doing this- it is absolutely terrifying to share a vulnerability, to give you a piece of me that feels weak and unprepared. But it makes me stronger. It erases that fear. Because what is the worst that has happened since I started sharing them? Nothing. No one has even said an unkind word. And even if they did- so what? That speaks more about them than it does about me. Who cares when I’ve found something I enjoy doing in my spare time? And hey- I can always get better. This is just a start.

My other matches? This blog, for one. I’ve started and restarted it for years, but this feels different somehow. My mentality towards my work has shifted. And it feels so damn good to be writing again, and to be so brutally honest with myself while doing so. And even if no one else reads another word I write: that’s okay. Because this is something I’ve always done for me, and this is something I will continue to do simply because I want to.

I’ve spent time refocusing on the things that I enjoy. I’ve reevaluated what I like and don’t like about my job. I’ve researched new learning opportunities and degree programs that could help me move forward with my life. I’ve begun making the financial arrangements required for a future shift. I’ve admitted my fears and my lack of direction. I’ve opened up with those close to me about the things I really want to do with my life and my fears surrounding them. And I’m finally doing something about it. My scrappy side is coming out, and she is one tough little cookie. I’m working on changing my inner dialog so that I stop telling myself I can’t do the things that I love. Perhaps these dreams won’t turn out exactly as I hoped, but that doesn’t mean they won’t lead me somewhere even better; that doesn’t mean they don’t still have a place in my story.

This week I’ll continue on that path. I’ll write awkward sentences and draw some abstract art. I’ll drink plenty of water and eat healthy foods to feed my brain. I’ll spend more time with my motivational self-help books and career guides, and I’ll consider new paths that I never truly let myself examine before. I’ll light one little matchstick after another until the shadow is a memory. That’s the only way to fight this little war.

I could feel the icy grip of tentacles closing around me, hear the whispered shouts and screams of his former victims as he pulled at me, trying to suck me into his realm, to sap the life right out of me. There was no one here to rescue me, not a soul who would know where to look. My Muse would stay locked in that tower forever, thinking I had given up on her.

No, this couldn’t be how it ended. The good guys are supposed to win, they are supposed to climb the mountain, reach the summit, be the hero of their own story. They aren’t supposed to die on an anonymous path in the middle of the woods. This is not how the story goes. I slowly reached for my pack, fighting against the fog that was clouding my brain. The shadow was too focused on his imminent success to even notice the subtle shift in my thoughts, the hardening edge of determination creeping into my mind. I reached for the tiny splinter of wood and struck the match.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Side Quest, Week 1 Recap: Art Challenge (an epiphany in pencils)

Last week I made a little creative side-quest to go along with my “Rescue the Muse” challenge. It was really pretty simple: draw something every single day. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, what items were used, how technical the piece was or even how “pretty” it came out. The whole purpose was to get out of my own head and start playing again in a medium that I don’t find myself particularly skilled in. All of this was done in an effort to overcome my fixation with perfection. I have a bad habit of dropping ideas when I don’t think I can live up to my personal standard- so bad drawings sounded like a pretty fun way to toy with my inner critic. (We will be dealing with these inner monsters a little bit more this week as we continue on our Muse-Saving Quest).

Now, I anticipated that I would have some fun with this challenge, and I knew going into it that my artistic abilities wouldn’t suddenly be morphing into anything grand or amazing. Don’t believe me? Look at Exhibit A: (virtually slaps sheet of paper onto the screen)

Hehe- I added the photo of Link to give you an idea of what I was attemtping to draw in the middle of the sketch on the left. Lucky for me, Link is an unconditional-love kind of dog, and not much of an art critic. He was just tickled to be included.

While I was anticipating that this challenge would be solely about learning to draw and playing around with circles and lines- I wasn’t prepared for the epiphanies that came with the meandering lines and overworked erasers. I’m not sharing the above sketch with you to show you the kinds of “skills” I’m working with- I’m sharing it because it is the perfect example of what art morphed into. You see, I started this random assortment of drawings by playing with things that I enjoy: my dog, Star Wars (which turned into a very sad baby yoda), the mountains, chairs (apparently I’m a big fan of sitting- honestly, I don’t really know why that one is there). As I was drawing I could feel my insecurities building, I could hear that little voice start to whisper that I wasn’t any good and should just quit. Instead of listening to it, I started drawing a little anxiety monster in the upper right-hand corner (based off of the Mental Illness Monsters created by Toby Allen- look them up, he is phenomenal).

As I finished drawing my little monster I decided to scrawl out the words bouncing around in my brain- don’t worry, it’s written by a lefty in cursive, so I don’t expect anyone to be able to read it. But it says “What does it say about me when I am far better at creating monsters than the things I love?” And below baby yoda, I wiggled out my own reply after a moment’s hesitation, “My sweet, who ever said you shouldn’t love the monsters too?” It was a strange, yet peaceful moment to acknowledge my internal monsters without trying to shove them back into the dark. It was powerful in a way I didn’t expect. I ventured away from the usual cartoons I like to draw, and wound up uncovering an inner-truth I’ve been struggling with.

And here is the real epiphany I never expected when starting on this little journey: art in any form is emotional. That’s what makes it so damn beautiful. It captures truths we didn’t know were inside of us- and even if you can’t ‘read’ it in the artwork, the artist can feel it. As a writer, I have always experienced this moment with words: my words are my lifeblood, they are my link to the world, and they tether me to the things that are important. I am accustomed to the emotions that roil below the surface when I am writing. I never expected to feel that same energy channeled into my random little sketches. Which leads me to believe that it is the act of creation itself that makes us more connected to who we are in this vast world; and not just the particular form we thought we were good at. Art and emotions are intrinsically tied together; you cannot have one without the other.

So I got brave with my pieces after that. I decided to tap into this well that I’ve struggled with. I decided to embrace the emotions that were coursing through me, and allow them to lead me to my next piece. I was able to channel these emotions that I haven’t even been able to adequately write about- instead, they came out in sweeping lines of colored pencil. And while the picture itself isn’t anything grand or spectacular: it has turned into something pivotal for me, a piece of my soul that has been liberated and can now float freely into the world.

The backstory here is pretty important to the outcome. As I have shared before on this blog, at the beginning of 2019 I experienced my first pregnancy loss while in my second trimester. What most people don’t know is that seven months later I lost my second at eight weeks. 2019 was a year of painful transformation for me; I not only had to deal with the pain of the losses themselves, but also the loss of security in a dream I always carried. I was left unmoored in the world, unsure of what a future would look like for me. It’s been a struggle- there’s no nice way to get around that. And I have found it exceedingly difficult because this was the first time in my life that my words failed me. I couldn’t adequately portray the roiling ocean I had tearing me up inside. I didn’t have the words. And that was terrifying in so many ways because my words are all I ever really depended on. Without my voice, I lose who I am as a person. I’ve had these images and feelings buried inside all of this time without the relief of releasing them into the world.

So I started tapping into that well, and I let those silly colored pencils dance across the sheet. And when I was done I found myself staring at the picture I haven’t been able to speak into existence. It is a sketch of a promise lost: two sweet little boys (I always picture them as two little boys) running around the grass together, counting stars, and existing in this beautiful place with one another- a place that I can’t go to yet. And in my head, I see them sitting together, staring at the same moon I look at from my bedroom window as I ask the question I ask them every single night, “Can you feel me when I think of you?”

It was powerful and therapeutic, and so damn good for my soul to see the picture I’ve carried inside all this time. Even in its childlike imperfection: it speaks the truth I couldn’t verbalize, the one that was too large to be ensnared in syllables. But here it was, on a piece of paper that I could hold and touch. It existed somewhere outside of me for the first time in nearly a year.

It reminded me of the importance of this work; these creative endeavors that we take on. Sometimes the tools you have in your kit aren’t adequate for the job that you need done. Sometimes you need to step outside your comfort zone and try something you aren’t very good at- because it will help you grow in so many more ways than you anticipated. Sometimes you need to put down your words in order to speak your truth.

Daily Art Challenge (finding a spark)

When we are small we carry ten thousand little sparks within us: these are tiny flares of passion that have the potential to ignite if we care for them properly. We instinctively know how to fan the flames until they roar with life and crackle with promise. Yes, when we are small we are fire keepers. We don’t have words for this; it is a feeling, an action, an unnamed something- but we know it is special.

As we grow we learn the language of man and all that it entails. We stop speaking to the flames as we christen ourselves their masters. Like Pandora opening a box, we suddenly discover rigid definitions that we plaster to objects without a care. We lose the mystery of the unknown because we don’t have to make up stories to explain things to ourselves anymore. And perhaps, what is the worst ‘gift’ adulthood brings us: the idea of perfection, the concept that things are not ‘good’ simply because they exist. We create these strict rules that must be lived by, and we smother the sparks that gave us life.

I don’t know when I decided I “couldn’t” anymore. One day I was drawing tornado people, decorating cookies, skinning my knees sliding into home plate, creating math-codes that spelled out words, and dancing to the tiny boom box that was my pride and joy. And then suddenly I had these ideas in my head of what made those things ‘good’ and ‘beautiful,’ and I decided that I couldn’t live up to those standards. I decided that I couldn’t cook, or decorate, or play baseball, or do math, or paint, or draw, or dance. My chicken usually came out dry, my wiggling body inspired laughter instead of admiration, my drawings always had cartoon hands and bad proportions, and I never could knock that ball out of the park. It was easier to save myself the embarrassment of not being good enough and simply shake my head as I whispered, “Sorry, I’m no good at that. Sorry, I can’t dance. I’ll set off the smoke alarm if I try making eggs. Nope, I don’t draw, don’t sing- not gifted that way.” It was easier to turn these former passions into self-depreciating jokes; because, hey, humor’s fun and insecurities suck. And just like that- ten thousand sparks lost their light.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfection; to get frustrated when the ideas you have in your head don’t translate into the physical world. It’s easy to forget how to speak to the embers and give them life. It’s so damn easy to forget how to whisper to your own soul and bring it back from the brink of extinction.

So here is the challenge: stop lying to yourself and to everyone else. Stop saying you “can’t” do something when the truth is that you “won’t.” This was a hard pill for me to swallow: to accept the fact that I have spent years standing in my own way and keeping myself from things that I could love with every fiber of my being. I have spent so much effort building up walls and planting them in my own way. And why? Because I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough, that someone would giggle when I danced at the wedding. But so what if they do? If I’m having fun, why does it matter if I’m not any good at it?

Because here’s the thing: no one is naturally gifted at something, they just decided to invest in it. I am not a sculptor or an artist in any way, shape or form. But then one day I bought a little bit of fondant and decided to play around with some store-bought cake mix. I didn’t view it as art; it was just something to play with. And I liked it. So I kept playing. And then one day I was getting paid to make tasty treats for birthday parties. Not an ounce of talent in my blood- but I fed the spark and it ignited.

I can say the same thing for my cooking, and my writing, and my dancing (which is still atrocious by societal standards). But who cares how well I wiggle when I’m dancing around my living room playing keep-away with the dog, or waiting for the chicken to cook (and not burn, might I add- getting better). Who cares if I’m good at it when I’m doing it because I find it fun? The trick to lighting the fire: do something because you like it, and eventually you will start getting better at it. And even if you don’t: you are still having the time of your life, and that will always be beautiful.

My challenge to you: pick something, absolutely anything that you think you will enjoy but routinely say “I’m not good at that, I can’t do that.” Perhaps it’s dancing, or cooking, or art, or building rockets: this is your show, my friend, the sky is the limit. Pick that spark- and for one week give it life. Every single day, even if it’s just for 5 minutes: invest in that spark and see what happens.

For me: that spark is art. I used to love drawing when I was younger, but I was never very good. So this week I am challenging myself to draw something every single day. I am treating it a bit like a diary: doodles, how-to lessons, thoughts and images that pop into my head- nothing is off limits. And the goal isn’t to improve: the goal is to enjoy, to explore, to play. Now, that doesn’t mean that online tutorials are out of the question- sometimes those are the best way to dip your toes in. Remember what it’s like to do something for it’s own enjoyment; it’s pretty damn invigorating to play like you did when you were in the single-digits.

Throw perfection out the window and wiggle around the kitchen. Go outside with a bat and an oversized ball and make up your own commentary as you run around the invisible plates. Burn that spaghetti and enjoy every bite. Crochet a lumpy green scarf and wear it every winter. Create, love it, live it, breathe it in. And who knows, you might surprise yourself with what new skills you actually acquire when you were too busy having fun to realize you were learning all along. And even if you don’t: you are still learning how to speak to the flames again. So dance on, Fire Keeper- and never let go of that child-like magic.