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.

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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