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

Daily Art Challenge (finding a spark)

When we are small we carry ten thousand little sparks within us: these are tiny flares of passion that have the potential to ignite if we care for them properly. We instinctively know how to fan the flames until they roar with life and crackle with promise. Yes, when we are small we are fire keepers. We don’t have words for this; it is a feeling, an action, an unnamed something- but we know it is special.

As we grow we learn the language of man and all that it entails. We stop speaking to the flames as we christen ourselves their masters. Like Pandora opening a box, we suddenly discover rigid definitions that we plaster to objects without a care. We lose the mystery of the unknown because we don’t have to make up stories to explain things to ourselves anymore. And perhaps, what is the worst ‘gift’ adulthood brings us: the idea of perfection, the concept that things are not ‘good’ simply because they exist. We create these strict rules that must be lived by, and we smother the sparks that gave us life.

I don’t know when I decided I “couldn’t” anymore. One day I was drawing tornado people, decorating cookies, skinning my knees sliding into home plate, creating math-codes that spelled out words, and dancing to the tiny boom box that was my pride and joy. And then suddenly I had these ideas in my head of what made those things ‘good’ and ‘beautiful,’ and I decided that I couldn’t live up to those standards. I decided that I couldn’t cook, or decorate, or play baseball, or do math, or paint, or draw, or dance. My chicken usually came out dry, my wiggling body inspired laughter instead of admiration, my drawings always had cartoon hands and bad proportions, and I never could knock that ball out of the park. It was easier to save myself the embarrassment of not being good enough and simply shake my head as I whispered, “Sorry, I’m no good at that. Sorry, I can’t dance. I’ll set off the smoke alarm if I try making eggs. Nope, I don’t draw, don’t sing- not gifted that way.” It was easier to turn these former passions into self-depreciating jokes; because, hey, humor’s fun and insecurities suck. And just like that- ten thousand sparks lost their light.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfection; to get frustrated when the ideas you have in your head don’t translate into the physical world. It’s easy to forget how to speak to the embers and give them life. It’s so damn easy to forget how to whisper to your own soul and bring it back from the brink of extinction.

So here is the challenge: stop lying to yourself and to everyone else. Stop saying you “can’t” do something when the truth is that you “won’t.” This was a hard pill for me to swallow: to accept the fact that I have spent years standing in my own way and keeping myself from things that I could love with every fiber of my being. I have spent so much effort building up walls and planting them in my own way. And why? Because I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough, that someone would giggle when I danced at the wedding. But so what if they do? If I’m having fun, why does it matter if I’m not any good at it?

Because here’s the thing: no one is naturally gifted at something, they just decided to invest in it. I am not a sculptor or an artist in any way, shape or form. But then one day I bought a little bit of fondant and decided to play around with some store-bought cake mix. I didn’t view it as art; it was just something to play with. And I liked it. So I kept playing. And then one day I was getting paid to make tasty treats for birthday parties. Not an ounce of talent in my blood- but I fed the spark and it ignited.

I can say the same thing for my cooking, and my writing, and my dancing (which is still atrocious by societal standards). But who cares how well I wiggle when I’m dancing around my living room playing keep-away with the dog, or waiting for the chicken to cook (and not burn, might I add- getting better). Who cares if I’m good at it when I’m doing it because I find it fun? The trick to lighting the fire: do something because you like it, and eventually you will start getting better at it. And even if you don’t: you are still having the time of your life, and that will always be beautiful.

My challenge to you: pick something, absolutely anything that you think you will enjoy but routinely say “I’m not good at that, I can’t do that.” Perhaps it’s dancing, or cooking, or art, or building rockets: this is your show, my friend, the sky is the limit. Pick that spark- and for one week give it life. Every single day, even if it’s just for 5 minutes: invest in that spark and see what happens.

For me: that spark is art. I used to love drawing when I was younger, but I was never very good. So this week I am challenging myself to draw something every single day. I am treating it a bit like a diary: doodles, how-to lessons, thoughts and images that pop into my head- nothing is off limits. And the goal isn’t to improve: the goal is to enjoy, to explore, to play. Now, that doesn’t mean that online tutorials are out of the question- sometimes those are the best way to dip your toes in. Remember what it’s like to do something for it’s own enjoyment; it’s pretty damn invigorating to play like you did when you were in the single-digits.

Throw perfection out the window and wiggle around the kitchen. Go outside with a bat and an oversized ball and make up your own commentary as you run around the invisible plates. Burn that spaghetti and enjoy every bite. Crochet a lumpy green scarf and wear it every winter. Create, love it, live it, breathe it in. And who knows, you might surprise yourself with what new skills you actually acquire when you were too busy having fun to realize you were learning all along. And even if you don’t: you are still learning how to speak to the flames again. So dance on, Fire Keeper- and never let go of that child-like magic.

The Magic of 3am (I refuse to call this jetlag)

3am and I’m wide awake, dancing through stories I haven’t yet written, flitting through worlds that only exist in my mind. I’ve been awake for hours now, laying in the dark as the clock ticks down to my real life. Soon the darkness of the sky will begin to ease, surrendering to the twittering of the birds harkening in another sunny day. It will be as though this feverish moment never happened. It’s existence will only be hinted at in my periodic yawns and wistful glances out of an office window. Oh to live in a world where I didn’t have to pretend to be happy pushing papers and making phone calls, or typing documents and squeezing one more fifteen minutes into an overly crowded schedule. If only passion could pay my rent. It would be an awfully grand adventure to not stare at the clock on nights like these knowing I will regret this moment in a few hours time.

There’s something about these early morning hours that is magical and surreal. It is as though the curtains between my real world and the ones I envision grow thin, as though the door to Narnia was left cracked open, leaving only the thinnest of lace between us. These are the sweetest of dreams, the ones where you are wide awake and uninhibited. These are the nights when I learn something new about characters I have never met, observe habits I didn’t know they had. I can push them, poke the, mold them, and for once allow them to mold themselves.

You’ll only ever catch a writer talking nonsense like that; as though these characters are true flesh and blood, and not something conjured out of thin air. Only other writers will understand this fine line between art and insanity. The best creations could often be confused with a break in mental stability, an avoidance of the status quo, and honest disregard for the norm. What people often forget when they read those beautiful words is that they were once a jumbled mess in someone’s mind. They were the midnight ravings of a lunatic until they climbed out through the inkwell of a pen and found the solace of a page. That final conjuring is the moment when most are able to finally see those syllables for what they truly are: beautiful.

Perhaps it is because I just left a land full of knights, kings and queens, intrigue, betrayal and love. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I have spent two weeks exploring castles and staring at the headstones of the writers who paved the way for lowly wordsmiths like myself. Perhaps it is simply because I was able to cut ties with my own reality for just a little while to inhabit a life completely different from my own. Regardless of the reason, I can’t keep my mind at bay tonight. It is not content contemplating the normal minutia of my daily world. It is far too busy building castles and filling them with false queens and bastard children. It is too quick to invent imaginary wars and brave damsels fighting fiercely to protect the things they love.

Tonight I will let the story carry me, I will memorize the freckles on my heroine’s face and the sly crooked smile that betrays her secret lovers true intentions. I won’t worry about the alarm clock ticking away beside me or dread the mountain of emails I will be culling through when 8am rolls around. Tonight is for the fairies, it is for the monsters protecting me from the mundane as they stand vigil under my bed. Tonight is for the magic that only happens at 3am, leaving you with wide open eyes that sparkle with the possibilities of other worlds.

A Writer: Socially Acceptable Version of Insanity

Every writer contains within their soul a world of stories desperately fighting for attention. Their desire is to drive their creator so mad with the very thought of them that the author will have no choice but to bleed the words onto page after page until the fevered passion dissipates. Every story clings to the hope that it will see the light of day and be sent off into the world to open minds and inspire the passions of other creative souls.

There is a stage amidst the roiling waves of the creative process where the passion of the story becomes all-consuming. You can call it inspiration, the work of the muse, or simply the art of the craft- your terminology doesn’t truly matter, all writers know this feverish stage. All creatives are dreamers by nature, it is written into our very existence, coded into our DNA. It is at the heart of who we are as people.

Lately I have found myself lost in the possibilities of another world, another person, another untold story. When this happens I can’t help but blindly and unequivocally obsess like a fifteen year old girl who has fallen for the guitar-strumming ‘misunderstood bad boy’ she sits next to in science class and who has only spoken the words ‘can I borrow a pen’ to her. There is no rhyme or reason to this newfound mania, no matter how many reasons she may be presented with on the subject. It simply exists and must run its course. My writing is no different than this obsessive compulsion.

The stories and characters take up nearly every ounce of useable brain space. I run through dialog as I wash my hair in the shower, finally giving an audible voice to see how the words taste- while maintaining the dignity of a private setting where no one can judge me speaking randomly into open air for no discernible reason. I have to turn off my audiobook as I commute to and from work because I can’t concentrate on the words of their story, given the preoccupation of my own. I politely decline lunch offers because ‘I’m trying to get a few things done on my break,’ without mentioning those ‘few things’ run heavy on the daydreaming with a slight peppering of frazzled note-taking I won’t be able to decipher later. I’m constantly having to put actual effort into concentrating on my tasks at work without letting my mind wander at the slightest provocation of a spare minute. I’m struggling to stay focused on polite conversations as I go about my daily business, my mind is consistently meandering it’s way back to the same consuming thoughts. I stay awake with plot lines darting through my mind and dream about this world that does not yet exist, not even on paper.

The passion propels me, redirecting my gaze back every time I try to look away. This is what we mean when we say that a writer writes because we must, that we need words like we need to breathe, that our stories are our souls. If I don’t write I become consumed by it, embers burning from the inside until I burst into flame. I can’t put my feel back on solid ground until my story finds the sanctuary of the page. I do not write because I merely like it, because it is a hobby I find pleasing. I write because I would suffocate if I didn’t. I would go insane and finally start talking loudly to those pesky characters that live in my brain. As writers, we walk a fine line between passion and insanity; ignoring the words will only send us over the edge faster.

So please, if you see a wandering, dreamy look in my eyes while you’re speaking, or you wave and I don’t seem to notice- please be kind to me, I sincerely apologize. It’s just that some days I cannot escape the myriad of worlds I carry in my head. Perhaps in a few weeks you will ask how the story is going. I will invariably turn bright red and stumble over my words as I try to instantaneously craft my response (which will probably contain a lot of meaningless hand gestures and a few disjointed sentences). But inside I will breathe a sigh of relief because you understand this one thing about me. I dive into my passion because I have no choice. I have lived my stories a thousand times before their words have ever met the page. Perhaps I am a bit crazy as I stare glassy-eyed at my screen mouthing dialog by nonexistent people, complete with facial expressions I don’t notice I’m doing until someone else mentions it. Perhaps my preoccupation with imaginary worlds means I am a tad unhinged. But then again, if you take a peek at literature through the ages, the best of their creators always were- so at least I will keep good company.