The Journey Begins (Rescuing the Muse, Part 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Browsing for Creativity (settling for the default)

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

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

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

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

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

Erik Pevernagie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

And so it goes (hope within fear)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monsters in the Sea of Distraction (Rescuing the Muse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sea of Distraction: Digital Detox, Day 1 (Rescuing the Muse)

The Adventure Continues: Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

The fire burnt down to embers as we tossed and turned through the night, each pretending to be lost in our own dreamland to avoid speaking to the others. Admitting we were afraid of today could have broken our resolve, kept us shivering on this lonely island instead of taking the first steps to find our Muse, locked away in a distant tower. Now that the sun is beginning to creep above the horizon, we sit, staring blearily at one another. The moment of truth has come.

We douse the coals, though there is nothing left on this island for the flames to dance with; we used every last scrap to build that puny little boat we expect to sail on. For the past week we toiled away with the driftwood that washed ashore, lashing it together with bits of rope braided together from the sea grass. Our vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as castaways in this dangerous sea, we could hardly expect more. Every day as we toiled away we kept our eyes on the horizon, half hoping our daring Muse would have found a way to rescue herself and come back to us. But alas, we must be the heroes of this story.

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

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 a super hero (or villain?), 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.