Back on the Island: Finding Baseline (Creativity Quest – Still in the Sea of Distractions)

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

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been struggling with the Quest these past few weeks. I haven’t made the progress I would like, which should be pretty evident by the sparse posts making their way to the site recently. I am not the type to try to paint my failures and struggles in bright shiny colors to mask what they are- I think it’s just as important to show the frustrations of this path as well as the successes. A creative life does not always come easily, particularly in the world we live in.

I had an epiphany this week. The kind that forces the rain clouds to part so the sun can shine down on just you. I’d been having a rough week, my anxiety slowly climbing as my to-do list remained pristine and undone. I was simultaneously restless and apathetic about the whole thing, not really sure what I needed to do with myself. I knew I was putting in too many hours at work and not giving myself enough down time; and yet I still sluggishly hoped for a creative miracle every night when I got home. I’d sit in front of my laptop and halfheartedly poke at the keys, hoping they would start clickity-clacking all on their own, spinning an inspiring story that would buy me a little bit more time before I had to learn to do it myself.

I’ve been running low on energy, feeling that mental fog creeping in and enveloping me before I ever really got a chance to invest in anything outside of the four walls of my office. I’ve been getting irritated and a bit anxious over my dry mental well. It seems like this is a problem I just haven’t been able to shake, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try- it still comes across as pure laziness from the outsider’s perspective. Was I really going to give up again? Was I really going to settle for this uninspired shadow of a life? I’ve always felt like a phantom when I wasn’t creating- and I was growing so thin and wispy I could blow away with the slightest hint of a breeze.

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

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

Perhaps I’ve watched too many Disney movies, but I had secretly hoped that there would be a quick fix to my problem, some secret concoction hidden in a dusty old book just waiting to be uncovered so it could impart it’s illicit wisdom and show me how to live the creative life I had always wanted. Perhaps tucked away in a witch’s cupboard out in the woods there is a recipe for mental wellness that would instantly recharge my desire and banish the fog stifling the carefully crafted stories bubbling below the surface of my brain. Where was my fairy godmother and her magic wand? Where in the world was my quick fix that would make everything flow just a little bit easier?

Sadly, this isn’t really a ‘wish your way out of it’ kind of problem. I know because I’ve tried. I’ve looked through dozens of self-help books and combed through oodles of creative living blog posts. What did I learn? If you want to succeed, you have to do the hard work. As it turns out, creative energy and mental wellness are less a magical endeavor and more of a game of Shoots and Ladders. Drink enough water? Move ahead five space. Stay up late watching reality tv? Slide back seven.

I know there is an irony in me finally stepping up and admitting this obvious fact weeks into my Quest. After all, wasn’t that the premise this whole challenge was based on? The idea that there are no magical solutions and if you want to live a creative life you have to do the work? Yes- stings a little bit to know I’m still struggling with my own concepts, huh?

I never genuinely believed that I would find the Philosopher’s Stone- Creativity Edition. It’s not like I would magically solve all my creative problems and shout “See you suckers, I’ve got my golden ticket and I am out! Be sure to buy my new book next week, stay tuned for info on my upcoming art exhibit, and have you considered taking my underwater basket-weaving course? Mwahahahaha!” No, the crux of my issue really stems from the fact that I underestimated how much work I would need to do. To be even more specific: I didn’t fully grasp how far afield I had wandered from my ideal way of living. What I thought would be quick little hills I could easily hop over turned into my own personal Olympus Mons (the largest mountain in our solar system- I had to sprinkle at least one fun fact in the midst of all these complicated feelings). If I wanted to reach the peak, I was going to have to eat, breath, and fully live the philosophy I was preaching. It wasn’t enough to say ‘stop playing on your phone so much’ or ‘put that book down and start writing your own.’ Truthfully, I had half-assed some of my own challenges, and the fruits of my labor were exactly what you would expect: anemic and unfulfilling. It was time to put on the boots and get moving.

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

In a desperate bid for mental freedom, I did what I have been needlessly avoiding for ages- I untethered myself from my tech and went analog. Now, this is probably the perfect example of a tech addict realizing they need to detox. It felt a bit like that person who realizes that they do, in fact, finally want help with their problem in spite of months spent promising people ‘I can stop when I want to.’

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

This week is going to be a bit more hands on- and I can promise that now because I am actually pre-prepping my posts and (gasp) have a plan! We are going to be diving into the distraction detox with new challenges and tips coming every day. Plus- I think it’s about time to start sprinkling in some of the creative challenges, because what else will we do with all of our newfound free time if we aren’t distracting ourselves with cell phones, tvs and computers? You’ll be free to tailor the challenges to yourself however you wish- oh wait for it, wait for it- feel free to get creative with it. Ah, sorry, I had to do it. I feel better now.

To get the ball rolling, we need to be honest with ourselves about where we are starting. This has been my issue the past few times I’ve tried this portion of the quest. I didn’t have a good understanding of where I was starting, nor how hard it would be to change up some of these habits I’ve been building. I’ve treated it almost like an addict “I can quit whenever I want, but I won’t now because I have nothing to prove.” Yea- in hindsight, that should have been a red flag as big as the Shire, but denial is a strong enemy.

Finding Your Baseline

I tend to gravitate to my gizmos. Nearly everything has a techy doppelganger these days, most of our lives have migrated to the electronic world. If you have a cellphone, you pretty much have the universe in your pocket. When I was younger I resisted the pull of the tech world, I was one of the last people I knew to break down and finally get a smart phone. But I caught up quickly after that. I tend to prefer writing on my laptop versus using pen and paper. I read more e-books than paper ones these days, and I listen to more audiobooks than I read e-books. I will usually attempt to text or email rather than call if I can help it. Hell, I even use virtual flashcards instead of the real thing. I am an autonomous junkie, a tech-fiend, a new-age sorcerer. And I feel a bit like I’m being turned into a zombie. I clock in too much screen time and blast myself with a myriad of distractions throughout the day- it’s really no wonder why I have no extra bandwidth for my own pesky thoughts.

The crux of my issue: I think it’s a fear of slowing down, which is ironic because that is exactly what I need to do in order to be successful. We live in a fast-paced world full of instant gratification and immediate dopamine hits. We are told that down time is laziness, and to get anywhere in this world we need to grind. We never stop to think that all the grinding will usually wear us down. For most people, the pace of this world is not sustainable. But we all want to pretend that we can keep up, as though it’s a personal failing and not a societal one that keeps us moving to the point of breaking.

Weeding through the garbage and being honest with yourself is key to figuring out what you need to fix. I’ve come up with a few sub-headings that are important to my process, but if you have others- add them to your list and drop a suggestion in the comments. Creativity is closely tried to mental wellness and elasticity, so we’re going to take a wider inventory this time around. Some if it will flirt with the mindfulness techniques we tried out earlier, along with a deeper dive into our personal preferred distractions.

The categories we are going to touch on this week are:

  • Tech Time
  • Health and Wellness
  • Mindfulness and Mental Health
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Creative Time and Inspiration Priorities
  • Resisting Distractions

We are going to one-two-punch through these topics over the next week or two (gasp- big goals!) And each one will include a mini challenge to help us fix some of the issues that are clouding our creative thought process. For now, I’m just going to touch on some basic questions you should ask yourself to get a better idea of your baseline. For each section it can be helpful to answer the questions and engage in a bit of free-writing about the topic and how you feel towards it. Perhaps you have some thoughts or ideas that weren’t hit on my the questions- those are definitely worth exploring. Personally, I suggest doing these by hand with regular pen and paper, but it is totally up to you.

Tech Time

  • How much screen time do you have between your devices? How much of it isn’t necessary (ex: not work-related or helping you in any particular way)
  • What apps are hurting your mental health? Which ones do you mindlessly find for no particular purpose?
  • Do you have a good app that has gone bad (ex: I adore my reading/audiobook apps- but I tend to default to them to fill empty spaces that are best left unfilled)
  • When do you use each app? Do you find yourself clicking on Facebook as soon as you wake up or before you go to bed?
  • Email inbox: is it a positive or negative influence? Do you get a lot of junk? Do you let it fill up until it makes you anxious?
  • What app do you think you couldn’t live without? Why?
  • Excluding sleeping hours, how long do you think you think you could go without checking our tech? Why? Give it a try and see if it is a realistic number. Do you like it, or wish it were different? What kinds of things do you do that distract you from your phone?
  • Do you take your phone everywhere with you? And do you feel that instant jolt to check it as soon as a notification hits?

Physical Health and Wellness

  • What type of physical activity do you engage in? This can include anything, not just designated ‘work out times’
  • Do you consider yourself active or sedentary? If more sedentary, what keeps you from being more active? (I know that last question sounded salty- it wasn’t meant it- it’s one I have to ask myself virtually every. single. day. The answers are just for you, no one else)
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • Do you drink the recommended amount of water each day?
  • Do you drink a lot of caffeine/have a lot of sugar? do you struggle with anxiety or mood issues?
  • What does your diet consist of? Do you think you get enough nutrients?
  • How many hours do you sleep each night? Does it feel like good quality sleep?
  • Do you start/end your day with screen time?

Mindfulness and Mental Health

  • How would you categorize your mental health? Do you struggle with anything? Do you have any ideas what make it better or worse?
  • Does your mental health impact your daily living?
  • Do you invest in any mindfulness techniques? What do you do? Why or why not?
  • Do you like to go for walks? Do you pay attention to what is around you when you go out?
  • Do you have a hard time getting out of your head?

Work-Life Balance

  • Note: you don’t have to have a traditional working life to answer questions in this section. There are a lot of different kinds of ‘work’ in the world that don’t follow the traditional structure. What this section is really about is time you spend for yourself and time you spend for others/taking care of other things. Ex: taking care of children, household, etc. The main focus is going to me on balancing your time between obligations and personal goals/passions.
  • How many hours do spend working outside of the household and inside the household?
  • How many hours do you have leftover?
  • Have you ever worked overtime without claiming it, or lost vacation days that you did not use in time? Do you give back vacation days regularly/cancel time off?
  • How often do you cancel ‘your’ time for others? How do you feel about it and what kinds of things do you view as being important enough to sacrifice your own time?
  • How much time do you spend socializing with others? Do you consider yourself an introvert/extrovert? Are you satisfied with the amount of time you are spending?
  • Do you feel like you have enough mental energy for your personal creative projects?
  • When do you usually carve out time for yourself? Early in the morning? On a lunch break? At the end of the day? When the kids have gone to bed? Are you happy with this?
  • Do you find your work satisfying? All jobs have their frustrations, but overall do you find your work interesting/important/something you do well? Are you happy with this area of your life?

Creative Time and Inspirational Priorities

  • Note: this one ties closely with the work-life balance, some of the same questions will apply
  • What time do you dedicate to your creative work?
  • At what time of day do you consider you are your most creative?
  • What inspires you?
  • How much time do you spend with things that you find inspiring (watching a particular show/youtube video, reading a book/blog, listening to a podcast, looking at art, etc)?
  • Do you expose yourself to new ideas/creative styles regularly?
  • Do you take time to allow new idea to percolate (ex: taking time to think over what you read after reading a chapter in a book or watching an episode)?
  • Do you take notes throughout the day on things that inspire you?
  • What kinds of people do you surround yourself with?
  • What pops up on your social media feeds? Do they inspire or drain?
  • Who is your favorite artist (author, actor, singer, sculptor, painter, chef, etc)? What do you love about their work?
  • How would you categorize your own creative style?

Resisting Distractions

  • What do you distract yourself with most?
  • Do you have a good hobby that has turned bad? (something that is generally considered to be a positive habit/hobby, but you take it to the next level so that it isn’t so positive in your life anymore. ex: for me- it’s books, primarily in an audio format)
  • Do you get competitive to a degree that is unhelpful/becomes more consuming than it should be?
  • Do you feel like you can control your impulses/urges with your distractions? (ex: if your phone chirps with a notification, do you have to check it right away or are you okay ignoring it for a while)
  • Do you feel rested and energetic for your projects, or are you usually drained and struggle staying focused?
  • What habits would you like to break? What would you like to cultivate?

Take time to really think through the different topics, and see what else pops into your head when you try to evaluate how you want to live your creative life vs how you are currently living it. The only way we will make it through the Sea of Distraction is if we fight against the monsters swimming within it. But rest assured, my friends- we aren’t alone in it anymore. Until tomorrow my dear adventurers. Rest well, for tomorrow we begin again.

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

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

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

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

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

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

A Digital Detox in the Sea of Distraction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Down and Dirty (gardening and anxiety)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening and the Brain Game

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

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

Accepting the Imperfect

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

Growing a Mindset (and a few cucumbers)

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

Creating Community (and cauliflower)

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

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

Aligning with Nature

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

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

Getting Fit by the Pumpkins

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

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

A Mental Outlet Amongst the Plants

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Try it Your Omm Way (Meditation and the Muse)

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Eternal Happiness on Pexels.com

Which Side of the Road do you Walk on?

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

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

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

What It Means

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

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

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

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

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

Now What?

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

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

Blunting the Muse (Stress and Creativity)

Scientists have been studying what makes creativity tick for a while, with varying outcomes that have been interpreted and re-interpreted over the years. While is is true that the way a person is ‘wired’ can play a huge role in how their moods can impact their creative endeavors (like plants, we all flourish under a variety of conditions), generally speaking stress has been called out repeatedly as being an insidious tool against divergent and unique thinking. That’s right my friends; Stress killed creativity in the drawing room with a candlestick.

The chemical soup your brain bathes in when under chronic stress impacts all areas of your life; we are constantly being told of new evidence that will prove what we all (literally) feel in our bones: stress is bad for the body- I know, shocking. The branching tendrils of this research are still only scratching at the surface of what this means for creativity, as it can be a difficult concept to measure, and there are a wide variety of competing factors in a person’s ability to think outside of the box and come up with novel ideas. But what is unequivocally clear: the stress chemicals your body secretes hijack your higher brain functioning, forcing you to revert to habitual responses. It’s been proven to impact learning, memory, attention spans, and the ability to focus: all of which are crucial when you crave to create.

This is not a unique response that only humans experience. In 2009 researchers found that chronically stressed rats also fell back into familiar routines and rote responses. It changed the actual topography of their brains: the areas associated with goal-directed behaviors shriveled while those connected to habit-forming flourished. Even when their routine actions brought them repeated failures, they continued on their known course without deviation. They could not see the possible reward for their risk.

There is also the element of mental energy that needs to be addressed; when you are worried about major life events (losing a job, caring for a sick relative, etc), most of your bran’s energy will be directed at solving that problem (this is where the nasty thought ruminations pop up) and you wont have a whole lot left to feed to your creative projects. Energy is a finite source, even for your brain. There are certain tasks that are going to be gas guzzlers and there’s not a whole lot you can do about that. While diet and nutrition can help with cleaner functioning, emotional distress can be be the proverbial sugar in the gas tank.

So how do you fix a problem that seems to be built into your very DNA? Ironically, a little bit of creativity could do the trick. I know, I know, cue the eye roll. How in the world are you supposed to break out of your creativity-killing stress by working on the creative project you don’t have the energy for? Doesn’t that go against everything I’ve been talking about this whole time? Well, yes and no. It’s true that you might not be able to dive headfirst into your master project, but there are other ways to stimulate your creative neurons and get them to start firing again. The key is to scale down. If your stressed brain continually hones in on rote habits, then give it a new one to build upon. Basic creative tasks that don’t require a lot of extra thought can be the prefect way to break out of your stress cycle. The more you do it, the more you will ease the flow of that chemical ocean you have crashing around your noodle.

Some simple tasks like doodling, knitting, sewing, gardening, cooking; all of these have been proven to help calm an anxious mind and stabilize your thought patterns. The key is not to put pressure on yourself when starting on these tasks. Don’t try to draw a masterpiece, just doodle a cartoon that makes you smile. Don’t worry about creating your grand vision, just enjoy the act of doing something other than stewing in your own negative thoughts. You don’t have to make a five course meal, just plug along with a recipe that looks yummy. And if it burns- so what? Go for a walk and snap a few pictures of plants you don’t recognize, or the woodpecker that is busily searching for bugs in your neighbor’s tree. Don’t concern yourself with how the picture turns out (heck, a good filter can fix just about anything. And if it’s a little blurry? Well that’s just an artistic commentary on how the human existence refuses to slow down to fully focus on the natural world around it- see, you can turn anything into fancy art).

As so many of us probably learned during the pandemic: it’s hard to create when you can’t turn your brain off, when you are worried about a million little things. It’s hard to feel fully human or to embrace who you want to be when you can’t get the energy to focus on the projects that bring meaning into your life. It’s okay to fee stress and to have days when you just need to throw in the towel and take a hot bath. Reduce the pressure you are putting on yourself; eventually you will start to feel authentic, like a flower whose petals are finally opening to spring. And if it takes a little extra time- it just means the outcome will be even sweeter. Slow down, take a deep breathe, and put your mental heath first: everything else will follow after.

Adventure Awaits (Rescuing the Muse…again)

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

I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive, a twin image of myself, her hauntingly sad eyes starting straight through me. My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I alone created. This isn’t the first time I left her unprotected, not the only time she has been whisked away to a far-off destination. Though the walls to this particular tower seem much thicker than the ones I scaled in the past; the monsters are bolder, more aware of my usual tricks.

I failed her before, but I would not do it again. After months of searching for her, I had the faintest glimpse of the distant stone facade of the castle that had become her prison; spires slicing at an angry sky, flames swirling from the winged beast who had stolen her away. But then the monsters swirled around my, and my dull little blade was no match for their ferocious attacks. I was whisked away like a leaf in a hurricane. And somehow, I had landed right back on the island that haunted my nightmares; the place where all lost things eventually find themselves. This was where I had begun my search so long ago; trapped on this tiny speck of land amidst the roiling sea of distraction.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and square my shoulders. I let her down once, but this adventure is not over. No, that was only an intermission. My Muse is still in search of a hero, and I am the only one who can save her. There is a glint of steel in my gaze when I finally pry open my eyes and take a look around. I’ve escaped this place before, I will do it again. It’s time to get back to work. I exhale slowly and stand.

When we are little we are full of dreams, nothing is outside of our grasp because our hopes have not yet been tempered by the blunting force of defeat. Everything is still possible and full of promise. We explore, learn, experiment and create. We are capable of anything. But then we grow up; so slowly we don’t often notice that we are dismantling our childlike wonder piece by piece and tucking it all away in a cardboard box labelled ‘memories.’ You suddenly pride yourself on being a realist in a challenging world. You carry that chip on your shoulder like a badge of honor. You stop dreaming of becoming the president, or shooting into outer space to set foot on Mars. You don’t picture yourself as a rock star or a famous actor. Instead, you find yourself looking up degrees on business management and legal careers. You actively know what the current interest rates on mortgages are, complain about the price of milk, and file taxes that you still don’t understand. You are an adult, and you have put away childish things.

There is nothing wrong with growing up, with harboring new goals and dreams for the life you want to lead. But there is something regretful in that loss of wonder and hope. I have never felt like I fully fit in the adult world. Sure, I know how to pay my bills, and I can rock a blazer with my high heels; but that’s always felt more like an act. At 32 I still refuse to grow up. I wear silly masks with obscure book and comic references (and get giddy the few times someone recognizes them). I created an entire office full of my nerdy wonders. The one lesson that has really stuck with me through the years: time isn’t what will age you- it’s giving up the wonder, the creative spark that lights up our souls and compels others to notice us as more than just strangers on the street.

Humans were built to create, to invent, to unwind tall tales over a flickering fire. Our ancestors used their sense of ingenuity and wonder to create the first paints that would cling to cave walls for thousands of years. In a world where survival was key, they still found the time and the drive to dip their fingers into their pigmented creations and draw stories for us to find long after they had returned to the dust. It’s built into the core of who we are. We celebrate it, we idolize it; and we far too often refuse to make enough time for it in our own lives.

I love to make things; with my mind, with my hands- it doesn’t really matter. The saddest part of growing up was losing time with things that I love. I never want to stop believing in the magic of what I can do, to stop seeing the wonder in what we are capable of creating. Far too often we fill our heads with all the wrong things. We are bad at being bored, analogue beings in a digital world. We are over-stimulated and undernourished. Flitting between other people’s creations without ever making a moment for our own.

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

I recognized the change, though I couldn’t pinpoint when it happened. Looking back I still can’t tell you when my priorities shifted, when I started craving the pull of distraction. I just know that I jumped in without reservation and eventually the well of my own ideas began to run dry. There was a time I could fill notebooks full of sparking stories; tidbits and scenes that carried me away into distant lands I had to create. Now the few new concepts that come to mind are filtered through my dreams; as though my subconscious hasn’t quite given up on me yet.

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

The Map to the Muse:

Map created using inkarnate.com

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

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

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

This first hurdle we must overcome is perhaps the most challenging of our entire adventure, especially given the stressful world we are currently tied to. There is a balance to be struck between cultivating mindfulness and detoxing from the allure of distraction. There will inevitably some painful insights that will roil to the surface; these are monsters to be faced once we have leveled up a few steps. The key to remember: though we may embark on this adventure together, each of our journeys will be a little bit different. What works for Sam does not always work for Frodo. That’s why we will sample a little bit of everything; carry with you what suits you best, and leave behind what doesn’t.

For tonight, we shall gather around the fire one last time and share our daring plots and plans before the real work begins tomorrow. So tell me, my friends, what kind of monsters do you have lurking under the surface, searching for you in the Sea of Distractions? And do we dare to face them together?

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.