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.

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.

Carving out Goals (pretty bold for 2020)

Gee willikers, Radioactive Man, we are already halfway through 2020. While I am tempted to sit and wallow in my little pit of denial a bit longer, I suspect I have a better way to deal with this mini-existential-crisis-in-the-making. While it’s true that this year holds the record for worst played game of Jumanji in recent history, there’s still six months stretching out before us. Now, granted; there is the distinct possibility that next month a well-intentioned scientist will bring back tyrannosaurus rex (but with longer arms and an insatiable taste for human flesh), or not-so-friendly aliens in search of their next home world will invade (and they won’t be susceptible to water or the common cold), or we will discover that those monsters in Tremors have finally woken up from a long hibernation (and they are pissed). In spite of the possibilities, I would still like to hold out hope that this dumpster fire of a year might be turning around. Ha- I know, I may have just jinxed the entire human race. My bad.

Let’s not be too harsh, this was literally a couple of how-to-draw youtube videos cobbled together in about 20 minutes by a girl who has never been known for her artistic abilities. But still- kind of fun to play with. Creativity Challenge: check! (side note: that is supposed to be the Space Needle, although it kind of gives the impression that it’s a sandwich being offered to the aliens on a very large platter. Be that as it may, I stand by my work. yay for beginners!) Side-side note: I have named the alien Snoot-Snoot, and our T-Rex is Terry.

The point that I’m very slowly meandering towards (sorry, it was way too fun coming up with different end-of-the-world scenarios) is that the past six months have made for an extraordinarily painful year for the vast majority of people. But here’s the silver lining: oftentimes the painful moments lead to the most growth. We’ve been given a glimpse of a future we don’t want to continue towards. We’ve been given a time out to reevaluate what we want from our lives, our employers, our neighbors, and our countries. I could go down the political rabbit hole right now, but I’m going to pump the brakes on that one for today. Right now my focus is going to be narrowed considerably. I think most of us have come to a impasse where change is going to be a requirement moving forward. We want to change society as a whole and the systems we live our lives within, we want to change the working environment that has not prioritized us as human beings. We want to change our role in the spaces in inhabit. But change starts with us before it can ripple out and take over the rest of the world.

It’s been a while since I’ve done any in-depth goal planning for my life. Primarily because when the world hits the proverbial pause button and you don’t know what your new normal will look like a week from now, it’s difficult to plan much farther than ‘today.’ But at the moment, I can see my personal trajectory a little bit better (and also: I’ve become a black belt in the art of pivoting when life throws a punch, so bring it June, I’m ready for ya) so I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable with this whole ‘planning’ thing. Which leads me back down an old path: monthly goal planning sessions- that’s right, time to get pumped.

It’s become abundantly clear to me that I am not particularly happy with my day-to-day routine. While I work in a field that I enjoy, the actual tasks in my wheelhouse are not things that I find rewarding. The pandemic has changed some of that; I’ve delved into creative problem-solving that will have a long-term impact on my organization, and I am very proud of that. But I know that once the dust settles, I’ll be given a thank you and shooed back to regularly scheduled programing. I think it might be time to start winding down this clock and looking for opportunities that will allow me to be a better person than I am right now. I’m worried that I’m getting jaded, and I don’t want to be that snarly woman who is afraid of change. So what now? What can I do this month that will allow me to walk into the apocalypse with a clear mind?

For starters: it’s time to make arrangements to get back to school. I need to wind down my work hours so that I can accommodate night classes again. I need to save up enough money and register for a realistic course load. This is a road I have been down before, and it’s time to finish what I started. Bonus: most campuses are focusing on e-learning, which is something I am actually pretty good at, so that’s awesome.

Next: double down on the things I love because maybe, just maybe, I can turn them into something. I need to figure out why I don’t have faith in some of my dreams. Why don’t I believe my career goals are worth anything if they don’t include a 9 to 5 and a desk I’ll repeatedly bang my shin on. So perhaps this summer is the chance I need to reinvest in myself and my creative endeavors. Furthermore, even if these passions of mine never strike gold- I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am a better person when I invest in them. They light a fire in my soul that is not easy to quench.

It’s a given that I will keep pursuing my Creativity Challenge, but I can take it one step farther. We live in a unique time where you can do just about anything if you have a decent internet connection and some drive. So for June I will challenge myself to create, to dig deep and push harder with my writing, with my arts, with my creative endeavors (see silly pencil drawing above). Because who knows if this was the key all along and I was too scared to trust it. The goal is to stop being afraid of imperfection in your art, in your creations: hence why I am going to post the beautiful right next to the ugly. You never know embers are going to catch until you let them fly.

I’ve always been a pretty liberal thinker, and I have never shied away from sharing my opinions with those in my life. That being said, I tend to avoid certain topics on this blog, and I don’t really have a reason why. But I think enough is enough. I can’t be honest with my work if I’m not fully open as well. So June is going to be a time to amplify the causes I care about. And if I offend anyone…well, then that happens. I’m not really at a place where I am willing to apologize for that anymore.

The key to any decent goal setting is actionable steps. If you have read a single self-help or motivational book, you will know exactly what I am talking about. Overarching ideas are pretty, but they don’t get the job done. So. Actions to be taken in June for this little bug:

  • Take care of yourself in order to take care of others
    • drink 70 oz of water a day
    • 30 minutes of movement a day
    • journal at least twice a week
    • daily gratitude: write it down, say it, scream it for the neighbors (actually, don’t to that, they wouldn’t like it)- spend 5 minutes listing out 10 things you are grateful for in that particular day
  • Career and Education
    • Make a back-to-school plan and budget for the fall
    • Complete one online course (Masterclass, Coursera, Udemy- there are a hundred)
    • Read 1,500 pages (audiobooks also acceptable): I’ll talk about reading lists later this week
  • Creating
    • Minimum of 3 new blog posts per week (reintroduce old segments, such as Lush-Us Lessons, Mimosa Musings, Reading Challenge Spotlights, add a weekly Signal Boost)
    • Creativity Challenge: pick a weekly theme and complete one small task every day, plus one larger challenge each week. (example: drawing/painting one week, needlework and sewing another week, plotting how to take over the world can be week 3)
    • Finish editing Fan Fiction piece and upload it at the end of the month
    • Work on WIP for 30 minutes every day (even when you don’t feel like it)
    • Plot for July Camp Nano

So, my bookish allies, raise your favorite beverage (or the one closest to you at the moment). Cheers to us, to this new adventure, to making plans at the end of the world. May the remainder of 2020 not be a dumpster fire, and may this year wind up becoming the most important one of all.

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.

Browsing for Creativity (settling for the default)

I know it seems like a silly question, but what do you think your preferred internet browser says about you? In a world of ten thousand constantly shifting options, what does this one superfluous decision mean in the grand scheme of things? As it turns out- a lot more than you probably want it to. In 2016 a study was conducted at the direction of Michael Housman involving data from over 30,000 customer service employees. The original goal of the research was to determine why some people stayed in their jobs longer than others; and yet the far-reaching implications they were able to tease out of the data carry far more weight when analyzing who we are and how we live our lives.

The group collected large swaths of seemingly unrelated data. One of the questions asked related to what web browser the participants used. Now, I’m not entirely sure why they wound up keying in on this one factor- but it ultimately took them down a rabbit hole to conclusions I never could have anticipated. The group noticed significant trends between two primary groups; those who used Firefox and Chrome vs those who used Internet Explorer and Safari. In an attempt to level the playing field they controlled for computer proficiency and a plethora of other factors that they thought could potentially shift the numbers they were getting. But the differing variables they took into account didn’t seem to matter- the data remained the same. Those who were using Firefox and Chrome over Explorer and Safari had higher sales numbers, better customer satisfaction ratings, better attendance, and even rated their personal happiness as being higher than the alternate group. So what was the difference between the two seemingly arbitrary camps that accounted for such a marked divergence in these key areas?

Defaults. Most computers come equipped with Internet Explorer and Safari as their default browser. Those who were using these search engines (roughly 2/3 of all people) were settling for the default option without much fuss. It worked, it was good enough, so they used it. Meanwhile, those in the Firefox and Chrome camp weren’t satisfied by the default. They were curious about the options and took the initiative to make the change by downloading their own choice. One group was fine settling and the other was willing to reach for more.

While this seems like a pretty profound jump to make based off of a relatively innocuous decision, the data suggests that these simple choices can give a bit more insight into a person’s psychology and worldview than you would expect at first glance. It begs the question: what other choices are you making simply because they’re easier? Just because something is ‘fine’- does that mean you should stop searching for something better? How many aspects of your life are you simply accepting a default setting for?

“Dwelling among shipwrecked dreams and losing oneself in wishful thinking cannot be a solution to tribulations. Identifying cracks and apprehending the defaults in one’s life is essential to find a way to get out of a ghetto and to start a search for a new haven.

Erik Pevernagie

And here is where it’s important to stop and evaluate- it doesn’t really matter what your web browser is. The key point I’m trying to get at is this: what areas of your life are you defaulting in? What aspects of your world do you view as so inconsequential you don’t even stop to consider that there might be something else out there?

We all have moments of clarity and action; situations where we look back and realize they were pivotal moments in the story of who we are. But what happens when you blindly stay on that road without looking around to see if you have outgrown it? What happens when you know where you would rather be, but the act of getting there is far more difficult than the status quo?

It seems to be a running theme for me- sticking with a path come hell or high water because I do well on it. Perhaps it’s a stubborn streak I have, perhaps it’s fear, perhaps it’s pure laziness, or a combination of all of the above. Take my job for example; I do well, I climbed the ladder quickly and within my organization I am currently the youngest person with my job title. But I started working in this field when I was 17 and there are days when I am quite convinced I only stay because I don’t know how to leave. In general I enjoy what I do, but lately (well, pre-COVID; my duties have changed significantly after the crisis hit) I’ve been bored and disillusioned by it all. I feel like I’m living on a default setting and I don’t know where I would go if I gave myself the option.

I think that’s a part of why my current creativity challenge means so much to me; I miss the passion that comes with building things outside the box. I miss telling stories and creating things out of nothing but thoughts. I can picture this beautiful life in my head, and I’m not sure why I am so scared to reach for it. Once upon a time the life that I am currently living would have inspired so much excitement. But I think I am outgrowing it. And that’s okay. It’s okay to realize that what was once an intentional decision has become your default. It’s okay to admit that you need to open your eyes and look around you to decide if this is good enough or not.

So here’s to smashing the default, my friends. Here’s to opening our eyes and searching- even if we don’t yet know what we are looking for. And here’s to taking steps, even if we don’t feel like we’re ready.

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.

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.

 

 

And so it goes (hope within fear)

Well, my friends, it appears we have found ourselves in difficult and desperate times, living in the kind of world we have only imagined in our stories. It is an eerie feeling, to watch the world respond, to hear the newscasts that sound like they would be more at home in the opening scenes of The Walking Dead. There is a strange feeling of disconnected dread that hits your soul as you watch footage of hospitals overwhelmed in other parts of the world and know that your own city is only steps behind them. We have begun dealing in terms of ‘when’ not ‘if.’

Needless to say, the beginning of a pandemic is not the best time to attempt a multi-week digital detox. And while I still have not given up on my Quest to Save the Muse (from previous posts), the landscape we are in has changed. The focus of my daily life has turned towards emergency responses and government updates; both as a result of what I do for a living and simply existing during this period of time.

I don’t normally get into much detail about my work because I like to keep that screen up between my writing life and my working life. But right now it seems like an important detail to know about me. I work in the legal system, and my particular position falls into the category of ‘essential personnel’ within the courts. If my coworkers and I can’t make it in, then it effectively means that the local legal system has collapsed. We have been under evolving emergency orders that can change by the hour, requiring us to keep a pulse on the current crisis and analyze how those a step ahead of us on this road are responding. In the past several weeks I have worked more overtime than I ever have in my entire career. I have watched coworkers break down from sheer exhaustion and frustration, then wipe their eyes and keep pushing on. We have shared stories about our nightmares- waking up from a dream where our loved ones died because we got them sick. I check my temperature daily because it can be difficult to tell when your body is having a stress response or is getting sick. I worry- a lot; although as an introvert who has dealt with a long history of anxiety issues, I think I am a bit more equipped for this kind of world than some others may feel.

It has been a strange progression, watching this unfold in real time. I live in Washington state, a couple of hours south of Seattle, which was the US epicenter. I held my breath and braced myself when the first case to hit our shores landed a car ride away in a city I love- a city I regularly write about, a city my partner and I have repeatedly discussed moving to. We waited and watched as the counter started to slowly tick up and new towns were impacted.

We had all been joking about how hard it was to find toilet paper, finding laughter to cut through the uncertainty. The panic didn’t seem to settle in until the schools were closed. They announced it on a Friday night; and as soon as people got off work, many ran to the grocery stores. Friends were all sharing pictures of empty shelves and giving advice on where to go and where to avoid, “This store still has rice, that one is out of produce, the checkout lines are two hours long here, wait until morning.” That seemed to be the moment when reality truly hit people: this is happening here, this is happening to us, brace yourselves.

We’ve been on the roller coaster ever since: emergency orders began rolling out the following Monday, they changed daily and were difficult to navigate. A week later my state announced a “Stay home, stay healthy” order. We’ve had notifications of potential exposures, relatives who are in quarantine waiting for test results, grandparents in lockdown in retirement communities.

Through all of the fear and confusion, there has been one thing that heals my heart a little bit. It’s the way many have begun reaching out (figuratively) to help one another. One friend picking up a bag of rice for the person who couldn’t find any after going to six different stores. Others I only see once or twice a year who have picked up the old group chat- checking in to make sure everyone is financially taken care of. Many of my friends are teachers, most of them aren’t getting paid- some of them have been told that their schools might not be able to reopen. They mention their fears in a group text and when their phone buzzes an hour later they have money in their Venmo account and food being delivered to their door. Another friend brightened a dreary birthday by gifting me with toilet paper she had to hunt for- just to make me smile. At the end of the day, we take care of each others. That’s what we do. We reconnect from a distance and find comfort in a moment of fear and confusion. We embrace artistry to cope with reality. We keep trying, every single day, to make things better for someone else. That is what gives me hope right now- that is what keeps me sane, and that is how we find our way back to something beautiful after all of the pain.

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