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.

Lost in the Trees (Rescuing the Muse, Part 6)

As soon as I set foot under the canopy of trees, it felt like the sound had been muted on the world. Even the dripping of the rain was muffled by the umbrella of branches stretching out above me. It seemed a bit lackluster for the start of an adventure, though I wasn’t entirely sure what I had been expecting. I followed the meandering trail further into the growing gloom, steady in my stride. After all of the tales I had heard about these woods, I had expected a goblin or ghost to charge at me from the underbrush. But all was quiet. Was it perhaps too quiet? I kept moving, uneasy in my surroundings, wishing that I were back at the inn with it’s cracking fire and roasting meats. And yet I continued on, putting one foot in front of the other as my mind wandered between the place I had left and where I intended to go.

The thing that no ever tells you about the beginning of a grand quest: you seldom run into monsters right out of the gate. No, the first stages are usually a bit more tedious; you’re marching to a mountain, you’re discovering the mystery behind the gemstone you found, you’re laying under a blanket in a hut on a rock until a giant knocks your door down and tells you that you are a wizard. You’re going about your business while building up new routines to create lifelong habits. The beginning of an adventure is often boring and a bit uncomfortable because you are existing in a life that you are beginning to outgrow. It’s no different than planning that grand international vacation you’ve always dreamed of. First you have to slog through saving money, buying tickets, researching what to do. And then you have to sit on that 10 hour flight in those tiny cramped seats before your feet ever hit the ground in a new land. It’s tempting to pretend that the adventure starts the moment you get there, but the truth is you were on that road long before your metal bird touched down. This quest we are on right now: this is no different.

At the moment we are slogging through a forest. We are feeling muscles ache, we are cold, hungry, and unsure if we are headed in the right direction as we listen to the chirping of distant birds. And yet we still put one foot in front of another for hours on end. At times this can be the most difficult part because at this stage you aren’t seeing results yet. You are fighting your bad habits, you are itching to pick up your phone and scroll through social media one more time, you are dying to watch that last episode of that one show you can’t get enough of. You are learning how to build yourself up so that you can fight the monsters and save the world later.

The surrounding gloom was slowly darkening; I could only assume that night was beginning to creep in over the land, though I hadn’t seen the sun itself in ages. I knew I wouldn’t be through this forest in a day, but I was still uneasy with staying the night here. After finding a small clearing in the trees I set up my tiny tent and lit a wisp of a fire. This wasn’t what I had been expecting at all.

“Pleasant evening to you, young adventurer,” a voice burbled near a rock at the distant corner of my patch of earth. I squinted my eyes in concentration towards the sound, but couldn’t see anything at first.

“Where are you?” I whispered uneasily, clenching the strap of my pack that lay at my feet.

There was a rustle of sound from the rock as a small creature hopped up onto it’s surface, it’s back legs scurrying as it pushed it’s round little body up within view. He turned his large eyes at me and blinked. I had never seen anything like him before: he resembled a frog, with a wide-set mouth and strong back legs obviously meant for hopping. But his skin was a deep purple and appeared to be covered in shiny diamond-like scales; a miniature suite of armor. I blinked back at him, unsure of what his sudden appearance could mean. “Hello,” I finally breathed, a bit of me was relieved at his small stature, though I knew I should be wary of everything in these woods.

“And what kind of quest would you be upon, youngling?” the creature asked conversationally. He gurgled a laugh at my startled expression, “Everyone who sets foot this far into the woods is in search of something. These trees are not for the whimsical explorer. So what are you after?”

“M-my Muse,” I stutter before clearing my throat, “My Muse was taken from me. She is hidden away in a dragon-guarded tower far to the north. I am going to rescue her.”

He croaked a bellowing laughter, “Why on earth would you want to find a Muse for? Life can be lived perfectly fine without one. Why, look at me, I haven’t had a Muse a single day of my life and I’ve done quite well for myself. I have a beautiful bog, a sweet wife, a couple of spry little tadpoles. Life is quite grand without dealing in pesky adventures and Muses,” he scoffed.

I shrugged, “I just need mine, is all. I can’t live the life I want without her. She helps give me purpose. My Muse is my heart and soul,” I glance down to the creature, “Not that you need one to live a good life. It’s just- it’s a different kind of life I want.” I didn’t want to offend my visitor, I still had no idea what he truly was.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like you’ve really tried to live without a Muse, have you? All that business with creating and thinking- it sounds quite tedious if you ask me. No, why don’t you come with me to the bog and just see how you like it. Many people live without a fabled Muse whispering into their ears all the cursed day. It would probably be a relief to you,” he gestured back to the woods, attempting to coax me away. I shook my head, but before I could say a single word, he launched back into his speech, “Oh come now, youngling, you don’t even know if you’ll actually succeed in this quest. What if you fail? What if you do all of this work and you don’t find her? Or you find her and she winds up not being as amazing as you expected? What if you two don’t create this grand future you seem to have envisioned?”

I shrug my shoulders as I pick up a stick to prod the fire with. Embers fly into the sky and die on the air before our eyes. “I need to know that I tried, at least. And even if we don’t create something grand- that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be beautiful to me. I just need to try.”

The tiny creature grumbled as he stiffly slid off his rock. He hopped over to a tree and spit on the bark; the sticky substance that landed glowed a brilliant shade of purple. “If you ever wise up and change your mind, or if you fail,” he eyed me seriously, “Think about coming back and trying my way for a change. Just come back to these woods and look for this mark- go straight in, walk for about 20 minutes and you’ll find my bog.” He started hopping back into the gloom before pausing, “Good luck, youngling, I’ll see you soon.” And with that, he was gone.

The biggest risk you will come across in this forest is getting lost within it’s twisting branches. Distractions and side-quests pepper the ground like pine cones. There are hares that you will want to chase into the dense underbrush and hobgoblins that will attempt to entice you off of the path you have chosen. Your old habits and comfortable thoughts will whisper to you, play into your weaknesses, tell you that it’s too hard, you won’t succeed, and what you had was never that bad to begin with. The truth is, they don’t want you to leave this forest. This road can be a lonely one, and at times it can become quite monotonous. You are at the stage of hard-work and little reward; what you may not realize is that within these trees your mettle is truly being tested. If you can push through the mundane and keep your eyes on that distant goal, then you stand a real chance of discovering the inspiration you carry within. Do not forget these shuffling steps that started you off. Do not ignore the internal monsters you are battling while walking this road. There is no quick solution for this stage. I don’t have magical words that will transport you to the end of the game with all of those good habits pre-filled into your routine- this is a fantasy quest, not sci-fi; Scottie can’t beam us up from here.

To make it through the forest, you must learn to fully invest in yourself so that you have the the strength to keep walking, even when you aren’t entirely sure you are headed in the right direction. You must learn to acknowledge the goblins that creep across your path, shining their light and whispering sweet nothings to tempt you away from your goal. Right now your main pursuit is to find your route, learn what a workable lifestyle is for you. If you are struggling, dig a little deeper to find out why. Are your obligations overwhelming you, are you lacking support, are you lacking confidence in yourself and your dream? You will never walk out of this forest until you face the demons you carry around with you. Take care of yourself so that you can nurture those dreams nestled within. And always, always: be patient with your process. This is not a sprint to the mountain- so take your time and keep putting one step in front of the other.

The Shuffling Steps of the Past Week:

It’s okay if your steps this week were smaller than anticipated; every single one of them is worth celebrating. My week was not particularly linear, I had great days, and then some not-super great days. I was waylaid by goblins on a few occasions (mine tend to wear a mask of motivation, which I struggle to overcome). But I kept trying. My feet continued to move, even if it was only a shuffle. While I missed the mark on my daily goals, I did still accomplish some pretty awesome things. I managed to cook a few meals without recipes (and they were even edible, though the pictures are bit lackluster), edited a few chapters of an old Fan Fiction I want to have done by the end of June. I wrote in my journal, cleaned up the blog and some old WIPs, did some creative computering at work (still counts), 3 days of an art challenge (woohoo!), I made a hat for my Dobby and researched some new projects while I was at it.

But there are some major improvements that need to be made still. I need to come up with a daily routine that will prioritize my creative projects. I’m getting better, but I’m not there yet. I had a few days where I fell into old bad habits and I noticed a marked downturn in my mood when those days popped up. To be perfectly honest, those days wound up being more depressing than anything, and they took a bit of effort to climb out of.

The Challenges for Next Week:

  • Daily art challenge:
    • create one piece of art/drawing every single day. Doesn’t matter if it’s something you see, imagine, or are feeling- it doesn’t have to be pretty, skill is not a component. Think of it like an art diary that will act as a time capsule for what you were thinking about this year.
  • Clean up and reorganize my areas so they reflect my goals better
    • The desk is a mess, clean it up, and hang up all of those things that make you happy.
    • Do the household chores early: you’ll feel less stress when it’s time to create
  • Finish editing Fan Fiction piece
  • Nail down the Self-Care for Creativity Routine
    • 70 oz of water a day
    • healthy eating
    • 30 minutes of movement per day
  • 3 blog posts because you have promised and fallen short every week

Good luck with those Goblins, my friends, I know they can be quite convincing at times.

The Journey Begins (Rescuing the Muse, Part 5)

The sun had barely crested the horizon when I pulled on my worn leather boots and slung my pack over my shoulder. I hadn’t told the innkeeper what time I would be leaving, I didn’t want her to be worried about seeing me off. She hadn’t wanted me to go to begin with. “Tis too dangerous out there for someone in your condition,” she had warned, “Orcs, dragons, the creatures of the forrest, the mages in the western lands; who knows what you will come across. You should just stay right here where it’s safe. I could use the extra help.” She knew her words were falling on deaf ears, that my mind was already made up. I had a Muse to rescue, and my heart would never sing again if she remained locked away in that tower.

I tiptoed past the rows of tables, making my way to the front door. “Thought you would go without me noticing, did you?” I jumped when I heard the voice from across the darkened room. She stood in the doorway to the kitchens, arms crossed over her chest, “You forget, my child, you are not the first adventurer to lay your head under my roof. I know what that spark in your eyes means, I knew you would be leaving in the next day or two.” She reached down to the table beside her and picked up a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied together with twine. “It isn’t much, but it should keep you from starving,” she waited for me to take the bundle and gently add it to my little pack.

Her eyes seemed distant when she spoke next, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve watched walk out that door in search of adventure. Most of them don’t ever come back,” she watched me closely for a moment before continuing, “Do me a favor, if you can. Whatever it is that you are searching for- don’t give up on it until you find it. And once you do, I want you to come back here, sit in front of this very fire, and tell me your grand tale. I could use a good story to lighten my heart.” She nodded her head once before turning back towards the kitchen, busying herself with the morning chores. She refused to look back in my direction.

The village was swathed in shadows as I made my way outside. The pre-dawn sky was filled with roiling gray clouds that drizzled lazily over the landscape. A small shiver raced down my spine, though I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or sheer anticipation. The weather promised a storm would be soon to follow; perhaps not the best time to begin a grand adventure. But I knew if I waited another day, I would simply fade into the background of this place. It would be far too easy to ignore the voice that was calling me forward, and hide inside the inn with it’s crackling fire and lively conversations. No, it was now or never. Even if that meant I was walking straight into a hurricane; that was better than wasting away in the comfort of routine and expectation.

I took a deep breath and placed my foot on the cobbled bridge that led out of the village and towards the Forrest of Furies. There were rumors of fearsome beasts and midnight Whisps that delighted in confusing the wayward traveler. It was time I learn what truths this strange place carried. It was time start the journey.

What kind of tale would Bilbo have been able to tell if the path to the Lonely Mountain had been paved and well-traveled? It is all but a requirement that things will start out a bit rocky, and you will run into countless monsters. It is the tests that must be overcome and the burdens that must be carried that crystalize a character into their greatest version. So stand proud when you face the struggle, because by facing it you are becoming your very own hero.

This past week I made my first valiant attempt at rescuing my Muse. To be honest, I probably looked a bit more like Don Quixote rather than Geralt of Rivia as I charged into my personal battle. But the key here is: I still charged in. In spite of everything inside of me telling me to give myself a break and do it tomorrow- I tried. Did I fail? Oh, spectacularly. But I also stumbled across a few unexpected successes.

This past week I wound up working a lot more overtime than expected; I’m talking 12 hour days- grueling, to say the least. The primary reason: I’m a millennial, and according to everyone in my organization, that must mean that I am an expert in all things tech related. Why yes, you all caught me; my first language wasn’t English, it was C++, I built my own droid when I was six months old, and I can figure out what is wrong with an entire computer system just by whispering sweet nothings to the monitor. Sarcasm aside: I don’t consider myself particularly techy, but I guess it’s a relative term, since it was agreed that I’m good enough to be on the tech team (gulp- it consists of the only 3 millennial in our organization, funny, huh?). But I digress.

My point being: it required a lot of extra mental energy for me to problem-solve my way through the work day. By the time I got home, my brain felt like a shriveled little raisin. I was exhausted (and moody- sorry to every living being in my household, including the plants). To be honest, I felt completely defeated. Here I was straining all day long in the hopes that I could come home and work on the things that truly spark a passion in my soul. I wanted to write, to create, to draw, to make up my own dance moves in the kitchen while waiting for the chicken to cook. I wanted to live my best creative life, because, damn it, I promised myself I would. But real life has a way of slapping you in the face when you refuse to adjust your plans. And it can hit pretty hard.

So here’s the catch (you knew there would be one, didn’t you? I wouldn’t just drop you off in that dark defeated place and say ‘see ya, I gotta meet up with a guy to teach him how to rotate a PDF’). No, there was a stunning realization I made that changed my entire outlook on my creativity project and my work-life balance. I’ve always known that creativity isn’t just art: it isn’t only found between the pages of a book or hung up on a wall behind an ornate frame. No, true creativity is versatile, it’s found in everything that we do, it is something that truly makes us human and sparks a fire in our soul. I spent my evenings feeling awful that I didn’t have enough energy left to create. And yet, what was it that sapped every last ounce of brain juice I had left? It was a different type of creation- it was a form of creativity that I didn’t count as being ‘genuine’ because it wasn’t intentional on my part.

I spent my entire week assisting my team in building something clunky, unweildy, and kind of beautiful. I created this behemoth using a medium I don’t general dabble in. I assisted in making a system that would allow my organization to continue functioning in this new virtual world we are all trying to navigate in. I carved the “cogs” of this oversized machine as I painstakingly trained overwhelmed coworkers. I found a way to break it all up into bite-size pieces and compare to less-intimidating tasks they’ve already done. I spent hours putting out one fire after another; creating a patch solution that would get us through the morning until we could fix whatever hardware had malfunctioned. I was exhausted at the end of the day because it took every ounce of creativity to come up with those solutions. It took ingenuity and whole lot of luck- and that’s exactly what this ‘Rescue the Muse’ project is all about.

Would I prefer to learn how to paint something beautiful? Draw my very own comic book? Make the cosplay outfit of my dreams? Or finish one of a dozen stories hanging out there in limbo? Of course I would- those things have always been passions of mine. But there’s some merit to be found in creating a tool you didn’t know you needed, in finding a path that you can lead an entire organization down. Creativity does not just belong to the creative arts- it belongs to all of us in every field.

And I have to say, I think that’s a pretty damn good way to start an adventure: by realizing you had been on a path headed towards one for far longer than you thought. Truthfully, I’m still holding out hope that this coming week I’ll find more time for my ‘personal’ projects. I’m taking advantage of this long weekend and writing up a storm, researching some pretty awesome ideas, and building up the stamina I’ll need for the next week. Plus, I have some items in my fridge that really need to be used soon- items that would be perfect for an at-home version of Chopped. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to make someone else eat it. With any luck, I will be sharing storied and horrible drawings, and perhaps a few terrifyingly new recipes in the coming days; but we’ll see what awaits us beneath at canopy of trees up ahead.

Until next time, my brave adventurers- keep up the good fight, and don’t stop creating, even if those creations aren’t what you expected.

Rescuing the Muse Challenge, Part 4: Shopkeep, where are your wares?

I couldn’t remember what happened after I washed ashore; I heard the panicked voices of the villagers that found me before I succumbed to the darkness encroaching on the edges of my vision. I’m not sure how much time had passed before my eyes finally opened again, but judging by the stiffness in my joints, it must have been a while. The blankets they had draped over me were scratchy and thin, but a crackling fire in the hearth kept me warm. The innkeeper was a kind, rosy-cheeked woman who always prodded me to drink a second bowl of soup every night after the doctor saw to me. It took a week to convince them I was able to leave my sickbed and make my way out into the small village.

The innkeeper sent her young stable boy to accompany me, not trusting that my shaky legs would be able to carry me back to the modest establishment. As we wandered the cobbled streets, I couldn’t help but notice the dreary store windows, empty of wares, or the way that so many of the villagers jumped at the slightest noise. When I asked my young companion, he scratched at the back of his neck and kicked at a pebble before suggesting we make our way back to the inn for supper and a story. 

Over a meat pie and oversized ale the young boy told the tale of his sweet village, “It was a very different place once,” he took a tentative sip from his drink. “Plenty to eat, toys in the windows, oxen to help work the fields. People traveled from all over the realm to visit our seashores, it was a happy place to grow up. But then the orcs came- driven from the mountains by the three dragons who decimated the upper lands. They plundered our realm and cut off our trade routes. Our resources dried up. Those who could leave did, and the rest of us just do what we can to get by. They’ve made their camp just to the north, in the ruins of the old farmlands. If nothing changes, then I fear the worst for my little home.” He glanced to me thoughtfully before venturing to ask, “You are on a quest, aren’t you?”

I nodded and told him of my beautiful and daring Muse, locked away from me up in the tower of an old castle. My young friend nodded his head slowly, spearing a soft chunk of carrot and popping it into his mouth. “Well, we may have to get a bit creative in the shops, but I will try to help you gather supplies for your journey.”

In these modern times there are a million different tools at your disposal to assist with your creative endeavors. Want to make a Chewbacca outfit? You can pay an exorbitant amount for the right fabric and find a pattern online to help. Want to bake the world’s best carrot cake? There’s an app for that (and a few baking contraptions that promise to do all of the work for you while you idly sit in the kitchen). You can purchase the best markers, electronic drawing pads, pre-cut fabric with step-by-step directions to make the perfect Harry Potter quilt. But what happens when the world locks down and you have to get creative with your creativity? What do you do when you can’t just pop over to the store and any online retailer has a three-week wait? That, my friends- is when you truly learn to be innovative with your ideas. You learn to repurpose what you have to make something new. You can refashion an old cardboard box into a treat-whack-a-mole for your (very) bored dog. It was a lot of fun until he realized he could try to tip it over to get to the orange snack of his dreams (carrots have always been a favorite).

 

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Back in the ‘old world’ I was the type of person who would research the best supplies and techniques for any project. I would stock up with far too many options before dipping my toes into the work (fully aware of any possible hacks to save a little bit of time). But the beauty of Quarantine Creativity? It requires some extra ingenuity. The name of the game this month: figuring out how to use what you already have on hand.

Today’s goal: make a mental inventory of what wares your little home-shop has and how you can work those into your creativity quest. Are there any projects you’ve had sitting around for a while? Any old items you dug up during your spring cleaning that you were planning on driving to the dump? Any stories you’ve had percolating in the back of your mind? A pile of weeds in your backyard you want to weave into a basket (no judgment, I have a heap of my own little yard demons mocking me from the window). Make a list of challenges, steal some of the ones I’m attempting from the list below, google ideas, ask a friend what random hobbies that have- you might be surprised what you come up with.

Your first mission, should you choose to accept it: create your map. My original plan had been to make a daily challenge for anyone who chose to participate; and while I’ll still post the route I’m attempting to follow- I can recognize that we are all in very different positions right now, and what will work for one person won’t even be a conceivable option for another. Some might have extra time on their hands to do a deep-dive into a project, and others might only get a couple of minutes to skim the surface, some might need to integrate other family members into their plans, or need to take a pause to deal with health issues. So think of this as more of a choose-your-own-adventure story. The world is a bit topsy-turvy right now, and no one should be obligated to hold themselves to the same standards they would have in the ‘before’ time.

My personal path is geared towards overall creativity in my life; reigniting the spark that I’ve lost in my daily adulting, so my projects will probably be all over the board for a bit. While I had hoped to complete one challenge every single day, I know that isn’t going to be realistic for me. Right now I’m working a lot of overtime that requires a ton of extra problem solving. Translation: by the end of the day my brain has shrunk down like a raisin. I’m trying to be realistic about the fact that I might have to chip away at these projects instead of deep dive into them like I want to.

A few things that made my list of creative possibilities (separated out into categories because I could):

  • Writing Prompts
    • novelize a scene from my favorite movie/TV show
    • Pick a random line in a book and build a story off of it
    • Write a short story about a modern day Don Quixote
    • Think of a common saying (ex: an apple a day keeps the doctor away), and write a horror story about it
    • Write a poem about how you are feeling right now
    • Write a fan fiction
    • Turn your playlist to shuffle and write a plot based on the songs you hear
  • Culinary Creativity
    • Chopped: Home Edition (Challenge Mode: Cutthroat Kitchen)
    • Make a tasty treat inspired by a book you’ve read
    • Create a ‘new’ mixed drink using what you have on hand (alcohol not required)
    • Make a themed meal (ex: based on a movie, a place, a person) Bonus points if there is an activity afterwards
    • Try to make an old favorite treat yourself from scratch (ex: Hostess cupcakes, twinkies, little Debbies, those oatmeal cookies with the cream inside)- if you are looking for some inspiration or recipes to help you: there are a ton of YouTube videos, I love the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen, but they tend to be way above my skill level
    • Recreate an ‘adult version’ of a kid’s meal (chicken nuggets, bagel bites, macaroni and cheese, top ramen– extra points for this last one because making genuine ramen is heckin hard)
  • Adventures in Art
    • try out a cartoon learn-to-draw video
    • use what I have to draw a picture of Link and Oreo (my two crazy critters)
    • paint coasters with nerdy/book themes (I already had this one laying around from the pre-COVID times, but never got around to it)
    • Bob Ross style class with the tools I have (honestly- probably some crayons and colored pencils)
    • Make a comic strip
    • string art (also something I had from the pre-Covid times and never got around to)
  • Creation Station
    • Cosplay using items in your house (it can be an existing character or one you created on your own- backstory is a must)
    • Plan my future Harry Potter escape room (originally supposed to be a part of my birthday party, but it was cancelled when the world closed- so now I have time to plot it out and make it even cooler)
    • Figure out how to fix something that broke during a fall down the stairs (only the object was hurt)
    • Redecorate/organize the writing space
  • Crafting Corner
    • Learn to knit
    • Make some Dobby-sized hats
    • patch my jeans…without a real patch
    • sew some masks
    • make paper/fabric flowers
    • learn origami
    • paper airplane competition
  • Lush-Us Lessons: Learn something new and write about it- can be literally anything
    • Neil Gaiman master class on writing
    • world history on Khan Academy
    • Honey bees
    • creativity and the brain
    • home brewing
    • (seriously, I cannot stress this enough: anything)
  • The Great Outdoors
    • plant something pretty
    • go for a walk, no headphones, just your thoughts (also works for any form of gardening)
    • Sidewalk chalk portraits
    • Name your plants
    • make a gnome home/fairy den
  • Journaling through the Tough Stuff
    • Oldie but goodie: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? What’s stopping you from trying anyway?
    • What’s one thing you need to forgive yourself for?
    • Name three things you like most about yourself? (bonus point: list three things you like about your appearance in addition to who you are as a person)
    • Write a letter to your past or future self
    • Name five things you are grateful for
    • Hardest thing you ever went through and how it changed you- the good and the bad.
    • What are your core values?
    • What do you think would make you happy?

Keep creating, my friends, the muse still waits in that dragon-guarded castle, but we are well on our way to that looming mountain.

From Pandora’s Box Came Hope (committing to creativity in an unsteady world)

If I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve been striking out on almost every single one of my goals lately. I haven’t posted in ages, I ended Camp Nano thousands of words behind, I got a whole extra month to read my book club book and I’ve barely cracked it open. My sink is full of dishes, I have an overflowing hamper in my laundry room, and my front yard looks like Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs took over. Although, to be fair, the silver lining on that last one is that Rusty, my favorite red-coated neighborhood raccoon, has fallen hopelessly in love with the yard’s wildness. I have caught him standing on my porch staring at it in unrivaled adoration several times.

The point I’m trying to make: failures happen. They can be miniscule or spectacular in scale. Some days you will roll right through them while barely slowing down, and other days they will knock you to the ground and send you crawling to the closest blanket to cuddle under. It can be hard to admit when you are struggling, when you’ve broken that internal compass and lost your way. It can be demoralizing and it can erode your perspective of who you are and what your future will look like. There is no need to beat around the proverbial bush: failure sucks. It opens up an internal Pandora’s box; we are left grappling with all of the large and scary creatures that came flying out, while desperately searching for those tiny fluttering wings of hope.

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Perhaps it is the world we are currently living in, but I’ll be the first to admit: my mental health has taken a bit of a hit the past few months. I find myself grappling with concepts far bigger than myself, trying to wrestle with the idea that the future I had always planned in my head might wind up being a phantom image that never comes true. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way; with so many people lost in the limbo the pandemic created, we often find ourselves grieving for what we are currently missing and what may be lost to us in future. My nephew is a high school senior who is missing his final months, prom, graduation- the milestones that mean so much to us as we figure out how to carry ourselves into the next stage of life. My sister is the hardest worker I have ever known- suddenly forced into unemployment because the school she teaches at couldn’t support distance learning for her young students. She has been caught on lockdown at home while waiting for her first unemployment check to arrive after six weeks (and counting). My coworkers and I find ourselves pushed to the breaking point trying to institute new technologies into archaic systems that can’t easily support the sudden jump to virtual court hearings. And when I’m on my own time, I find myself trying to come to terms with the fact that my dream of having kids one day might actually be at an end. After two miscarriages, my partner and I were already a little nervous about trying one last time. And then when the virus hit, that little glimmer of hope faded into the dust.

So what do you do when your new normal breaks your heart? You mourn, perhaps you sink into it for a little while, maybe you bake a lot of bread and finally start scribbling into the journal that’s been sitting on your nightstand for the past two years. You learn to cope and you pray that tomorrow will be a little bit easier. And at some point, you just might be ready to take a deep breath and ask yourself one of the most terrifying questions you can posit: what now?

For me, personally, the entire landscape of my future might wind up being very different than what I had carefully planned. The idea terrifies me- that sometimes ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t translate to the real world. It is crucial that I find a way to still be okay in my new normal, to still find a reason to be the happy girl I’ve always aimed to inhabit. What makes me happy, what keeps be fulfilled, what gives me the energy to get out of bed every morning? Hope- hope for new experiences, new ideas, new stories, new skills, new adventures. I still have hope that I can create a life I will be happy with, even in spite of the losses. A few days ago I didn’t have that same hope as I lay curled up on the couch with a drink in my hand and tears in my eyes while watching Rogue One (I’m not sure why, but it’s suddenly replaced all Disney movies as my new medium of comfort). And yet, time has a funny way of slowly eroding the rough edges until you can pick up your troubles and carry them again.

If I don’t commit to myself and the things that bring joy, then the only alternative is to slip back into that dark place I climbed out of. I refuse to live like that. So here I am, committing to myself once again- committing to new dreams, new hopes, new goals. Or perhaps it’s more that I’m dusting off the ones I dropped a few months ago when I curled up into my shell and hid away from the world for a while. This new month is going to be a bit of an experiment for me: I don’t guarantee that there will be successes, just that there will at least be an attempt. I’m worn out with my autopilot, and I’m ready to reinvest in my sparks: the things that bring joy to my soul and keep me moving forward. I am ready to open the door and rediscover the adventure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Monsters in the Sea of Distraction (Rescuing the Muse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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