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

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.

Rescuing the Muse (Creativity Quest)

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

I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive, hauntingly sad eyes staring straight through me. My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I, myself, created. This isn’t the first time the damsel in distress needed rescuing; though the walls to this tower seem much thicker than they once were, the monsters are bolder, aware of all of my usual tricks.

Nonetheless, I take a deep breath and picture a tiny little hero stepping onto the field, long brown hair blowing in the wind in the striking way that only Hollywood can achieve. Her tall leather boots are tied all the way up her shins. Her traveling clothes are bedraggled and threadbare from the climb to this precarious place. The hilt of a silver sword glints at her hip , and a roughly hewn wooden shield bounces against her back as she steps forward. She takes a moment to tie her hair back into a neat little bun before squaring her shoulders and grasping her weapon in one hand. She glares at the tower, eyes scanning every brick and grasping vine of ivy on its way to the top. She is here to save the damsel, to rescue her Muse from the grasping clutches of the emboldened enemy.

My inner struggle with writer’s block has turning into a raging battle. It has become a ruthless war of creativity; a struggle for the words that will save the Muse from her dragon-guarded keep. In truth, it is no wonder that the inner war has grown so intense; I never slow down long enough to allow myself to create. By the time I am finally able to sit down and spill a few words from my soul, I discover that the well has run dry. I am simply exhausted.

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

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

The Map to the Muse:

Creativity Quest
Map created using inkarnate.com

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

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

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

This first hurdle for me is going to be one of the hardest: detoxing from the distractions in order to open myself up for more creative thought. There will be a lot of trial and error, perhaps some painful insights and diving deeper into the root of why I let my monsters steal my Muse without much of a fight.

Tonight we gather around the fire one last time before climbing into our rickety row boat in the morning. So tell me, my friends, when you face the Sea of Distractions: what kind of monsters are lurking below the surface? And do we dare to face them together?

Naming Your Fears (the core of writer’s block)

The firing synapses in my brain went quiet the moment I turned my eyes to the blank page. My mind was suddenly as still as the world during a 3am snowfall. It was peaceful and oh so infuriating. I am a lover of words, a connoisseur of the scribbled pages. I adore the way these tiny symbols can carry the weight of the world within their thin lines and looping forms. And yet the second that I find myself hovering on the periphery of a blank page, everything goes blank. I am alone with a blinking cursor that mocks me with every single blip of its heartbeat.

So here I sit, practicing in an exercise of futility; fighting the writer’s block by writing about its very essence in flowery descriptive sentences that stretch off into the sunset. I fight with pointless words that won’t ever see the light of day, hoping that each syllable I string together will slash at the tentacles holding my thoughts hostage. I feel like a hero in all of those fantasy books I’m continually reading, although I probably look a bit more like Don Quixote charging at windmills. That’s okay, I always found his pure devotion a bit enthralling, so I guess he is the perfect mascot in this little game.

It feels silly, really, to be writing like this. But perhaps there is a purpose, chipping away at the fear and anxiety that I can’t do it by…well, just doing it. Perhaps there is power in this Sisyphean task. At least I haven’t completely given up the fight, staring up at the crest of the hill and focusing on each individual step towards my goal. It’s almost liberating, in a way, jotting down words to describe the monster that has been haunting you for far too long.

It has been too easy lately to live in the world of distractions and ignore the passions fizzling away inside my chest. I’ve been losing myself in books, tv shows, games, errands and chores, time with friends and family. I’ve been getting caught up in making plans and resolutions; all while carefully ignoring the difficult things that will bring real meaning to my temporary existence. If I don’t create, then I don’t have to be disappointed if the outcome doesn’t match my expectations. It’s a game of Schrodinger’s cat; at the moment I am both an amazing writer, as well as an awful one.

The truth is, if I don’t write then I don’t have to face the fact that I’ve let my voice slip away; I’m like Ariel after she made her deal with the Sea Witch. My ideas feel stale and overdone. My words are rusty and dry. The touch of optimism and humor that normally colors my work feels like an insincere shadow. And perhaps this is where we reach the real crux of the issue, the reason why I have been so damn afraid to put pen to paper and send it out into the world. I am different, the past year has changed me and I fear that it may have changed my writing too.

It is no secret to those who know me that the past year was the hardest one I have ever struggled through. My earth cracked and swallowed me whole; the fall left me shattered and lost. I have spent the past twelve months picking through the rubble of my old life to decide what was worth carrying into the new version of myself I was building. I glued each piece back together with intention and love; and I’m proud of my new mosaic, although it only bears a slight resemblance to what it once way. I am not afraid of who I have become. But I am afraid that I have changed too much, that I am no longer the same creator that I was.

Writing is such a personal endeavor, colored by everything we experience and encounter in our lives. It is impacted by the people we surround ourselves with, the news we read, the tv shows, books, movies, music, and art we consume. Our words come from a deeper place. So it stands to reason that when that place has changed shape, it is inevitable that our work will too. Truthfully, I am a bit afraid to see the changes. I am scared that I just wont be any good.

I am aware that this is a silly fear; change is not always a bad thing, and I’ve always known that my work could use a bit more grit, more fire and fury. I guess I’m worried that I wont rediscover my lighter touch; that I will be too dark and twisty to recognize the words I always loved. Where there was confidence and fire, I now find insecurity and trepidation. I am gun shy and world-weary. I don’t know what will come out of my soul and find life on the page.

And yet, here I am; still writing gibberish and nonsense about writer’s block, poking at a sleeping dragon to see if it awakens, naming my monsters and charging at windmills. Perhaps not all hope is lost, if I’m still willing to be optimistic enough to try. Perhaps it’s time to release my fear and see what words are dancing around inside of me. Who knows what I am bound to find if I keep pushing through the anxiety.

To the little monster who’s been sitting on my shoulder whispering in ear that these words will not be good enough. So what? They are here, they fought their way to the page, and are staring proudly back at me. My words my be brittle and unsure, but they will get stronger. I will find a new voice to suite the new me. I have named the monster, revealed it for what it really is. I will be like brave Don Quixote, charging at my wordy windmills in order to slay my dragons.

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 Fear of Failure, A Fear of Success (hello blank page, my old frienemy)

There is a reason why they say that you must write everyday. But do you want to know a secret? It is not just because practice makes perfect, no, if only it were that easy. It is because time can make the tiniest hill feel like a mountain. When you hide from your words for so long, your tools become rusty and old. They do not flow as freely as they once did, your syllables squeak as they bend and pull along the line of their sentences. This tiny daily task becomes daunting and unwieldy. Suddenly you find yourself staring at this blank page, desperately needing a profound spark of genius to make it all feel worthwhile, to make it feel like you didn’t waste weeks of your life on nothing.

Stagnation; that is the fear. You are Sisyphus with your chosen art form- you push and you push every day, but if you slip- you must start back at the bottom with your damned rock. It is perhaps made even more difficult because you have seen the view from those higher peaks. You know what you are capable of creating, and you know how hard it will be to get back to those lofty places.

This is why the best advice any writer will ever give you is to simply write. Write everything, all day every day. Write out two lines on a sticky note at your desk between phone calls, pull out your journal when you get home, dictate a few sentences in the notes on your phone. But whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t take a couple of days off- even if you only write for two minutes: do those two minutes, toss every brain cell you have at them.

Refining your craft and discovering your voice is a lot like working out. You may have the grand vision of your best seller in your mind, you may know all of the key plot points to hit along the way. But, just like a marathon, you can’t go out there and do your best work if you haven’t been training. You might finish, but it won’t have that spark you envisioned, the elements that makes it stand out above the rest. It will be missing an integral component: the true voice of the creator, unshackled and free.

It took me a year of daily writing (especially when I didn’t want to) to find my voice, to discover the flow of the syllables and the tempo of my paragraphs. It took only a fraction of that time to let the voice fade. I expect it will take me another year to get those muscles back in shape. But if you love it- then it’s worth it. I will push that boulder up the mountain once again; wiser because I’ve done this before, stronger because I know what I am capable of creating- and I was so damn proud of it.

So I sit here and I stare at the blank page that is refusing to back down. But instead of putting it away with a sigh and an “I’ll try again tomorrow when I have the energy,” I start writing. And it’s clunky, it’s hard, it’s unforgiving- it isn’t particularly good. But with each word a little rust chips away. Here’s the beautiful secret of a blank page: it won’t judge you for what you decorate it with, it will simply be pleased that you took the time to adorn it with a crown of your own making.

Camp NaNoWriMo (let the adventures begin)

The time has come once again my literary lovelies, wordsmiths, ink-slingers and syllable-stringers; it is time for summer camp. Lucky for you, being outdoors is optional (though highly recommended), you won’t have to share any of your snacks, and you can wear your plot bunnies as slippers from morning til night if you wish. The July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Yes, it’s true, you can really do anything on the internet these days: even summer camp.

For those who don’t have a clue what I am talking about, let me just back up a step or two. Camp Nano is an offshoot of the main Nano, also known as NanoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a virtual writing challenge where thousands of people across the globe sign up to tackle a single venture at the same time. The main event takes place every November. The challenge: to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Camp Nano is the figurative little brother of the November session. It has more of a community focus to it. If you sign up, you get the option to join virtual cabins- either of your own creation or through a bot that will randomly place you. You also get to set your own customized goal- whatever you want it to be. You can track words, pages, lines, minutes, hours, and you can be as nice or ruthless with your goal as you want (this time around I’m being a little bit mean and going for a ‘double Nano,’ which means 100,000 words in 30 days). Every person in your cabin has their own project to work on, but you get to network and talk throughout the month as you all embark on the adventure together. Rest assured, it is a virtual camp- there is no travel required, and no real roughing it unless you decide to take your laptop out on the back patio.

I am addicted, I’ll tell you that upfront- and if anyone reading this is interested in writing- I strongly suggest you give it a shot, what do you have to lose? It’s such a positive community, it is one of the few places where I feel completely accepted. My oddball interests and quirks suddenly aren’t so strange anymore. Plus- there are thousands of writers who have years of experience, tips and tricks to share. And they are more than willing to help anyone who stumbles across their path.

I had never lost a Nano until this last year when a few things went a wee bit sideways in my life. I’m hoping that July will be my redemption. I have a few projects that are halfway finished, so I’m going to try to push through to get them ready for editing. I can’t wait. I haven’t decided if I’m joining a cabin yet this year; I’ve found a new writing group that mainly uses Discord to keep in touch through the year (all 60+ members met through Nano and have kept each other motivated the past few years), and I’m really hoping I can sleuthy-sneak my way into being one of the regulars.

Adventure awaits, my friends- do you dare take the first step to meet it?

Blame it on the Bloody Robots (when science and fiction collide): Lush-Us Lessons

Welcome to the first revamped installment of Lush-Us Lessons, my favorite weekend foray down the rabbit hole to discover unusual pockets of knowledge. These particular posts are meant to inspire, to reawaken your curiosity, and rekindle that love of learning in it’s purest form. All too often in life we force ourselves to pursue knowledge as though it is a laundry list: long division- check, early American history- check, cell division and human development- check, the correct way to hold a knife while cutting a wiggly bell pepper- check. We make the fatal error of taking the entertainment out of education, which stops the flow of curiosity.

I tend to be the kind of girl who hears one thing and start to Google question after question until I’m sitting awake at 2am reading about the history of tarot cards or the newest technological designs to cultivate a settlement on Mars. I am also the kind of girl who likes to take notes and let these thoughts simmer until they evolve into a story. When you take the time to learn about the things that interest you, you are rediscovering passions within yourself and giving your brain new fodder to contemplate in the middle of the night. If nothing else, these articles will give you something interesting to talk about at your next barbeque, or perhaps it will spark the idea that leads to your greatest creation.

So, without further delay, let’s talk about these bloody robots that may or may not take over humankind someday (dun-dun-dun). To give you a bit of background, my fiance is an electrical engineer who loves to teach. This means that after a decade together, I have become his slightly unwilling Student Numero Uno. Now, the concepts started crawling above my head a good six years ago, but I’ve managed to glean enough information to at least have a marginal understanding of techy gizmo news. Which is why I was so enthralled when I read about the robot fish that ran on fake blood. Yes friend, you heard me right: bloody robots are officially a thing.

On Wednesday a new article appeared in Nature magazine about a groundbreaking discovery made by a joint team of engineers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania. On the surface it isn’t something that would immediately strike your fancy, but once you dive into the content you realize what a big deal this could be. It started as an energy problem. Robotics engineers are constantly trying to perfect their design and move away from the old clunky compartmentalized creations to something more futuristic (think Star Wars or I, Robot). But how do you move from rigidity to fluidity? How do you create complexly integrated internal systems from the ground up when that has really never been done before? These scientists decided to look to organic life for inspiration to solve their problem.

Meet the lionfish of the future:

The robot creation

A real lionfish for comparison (beautiful and dangerous)

A robotic fish is nothing new; we have some swimming across the ocean studying coral reefs, and you can even buy your own little friend from the store. But they won’t work like this new one. You may be wondering why we don’t have robotic butlers who will fold our laundry for us (something I have been begging my partner to build for years), or why Battle Bots of 2019 still look like they did when the show aired for the first time in August of 2000. Why don’t I have an R2D2 kegorator scooting and bee-booping around my home bar? The answer is simple: the things we have made still aren’t efficient enough for this kind of integration. The amount of power it takes to create autonomous and ‘smart’ bots is extreme and our technology is just too clunky to support this shift. Until now, that is.

The engineers that crafted this little beauty mimicked the human vascular system to address the issue of energy. The fake blood that runs through our little friend’s internal tubes is filled with an enegy-dense battery fluid that assists with propulsion and electrical needs throughout the body of the robot itself- think of it like an energy drink of sorts. It delivers keys ‘nutrients’ to the bot as it flows through the circulatory system.

While the design itself is still not perfected (the battery life is estimated to be about 40 hours, and the fish moves glacially slow)- it has unequivocally proven that these types of advancements are possible. It shoves open the door for new possibilities as different scientists take the knowledge learned here and begin to collaborate, propelling us into an age where daily bots are a much more feasible reality instead of imaginings relegated to the role of science fiction.

When robots can function more like humans, perhaps subsisting on the kinds of oil changes you would give your car- then we can start playing with an unending stream of possibilities. Fully autonomous robots coupled with new advancements in AI have the potential to lead to great things- or send us screeching head-first into a Terminator storyline that no one wishes to go down.

While new advancements create an exciting possibility for progress (imagine the boom of creative endeavors if human time was freed from the daily tasks and drudgery we currently occupy ourselves with), there is always a risk. Look to any sci-fi movie or apocalyptic novel and you will see that humans have a key thread running through the heart of these stories- we fear that we are playing with advancements that we might not fully understand. We are apprehensive about what our creations could lead to: an AI that determines humans are a negative force in the world and must be destroyed or controlled, hackers breaking into secure systems to attack an unsuspecting populace, an EMP that forces us to descend into chaos. These are the deep philosophical questions tied to every body of science.

What are your thoughts? Are you cheering for the next technological breakthrough? Afraid that we are walking towards a future we don’t understand? Or are you simply inspired to write out your next novel diving into the beauty and terror these ideas inspire in the human soul?

For those who are interested in some additional reading (although Dr. Google has some pretty awesome options if you feel like diving in on your own).

Nature Article – this is the original scientific journal publishing; be warned, if you don’t have a paid subscription (perhaps through your school) then they will try to charge you if you want to reach past the second page.

Wired article

CNN article

ZME article

The Cards Never Told Me the Computer Would Crash (my adventure learning tarot)

I sat there staring at the spinning wheel of death on my computer and couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. I was trying to register my final score after finishing a test to prove my proficiency with reading Tarot cards, and yet I still did not see this particular obstacle coming. It seems my third eye needs glasses just as desperately as my two earthly ones.

I’ve always had a fascination with the obscure and unusual. I am drawn to stories about the Oracles of Delphi, and tend to dip my toes into the realm of mysticism when dabbling with fantasy projects I’m working on. It also happens that I am a firm believer in jumping down the rabbit hole in search of your interests to see where they lead you. As fortune would have it, when I stumbled across the registration page for the Tarot course I made a decision and dove right in.

Now, tarot makes some people very nervous; the stories surrounding it tend to be dark and a bit creepy, the stereotypical practitioner you see in the movies is generally an odd little duck who points to bad omens before wrapping her thin shawl tightly around her scrawny shoulders, cackling and disappearing into a foggy night. The symbolism on the cards bring to mind stories of the occult. But as it turns out, the truth is a little less dramatic.

Tarot cards can be traced back to the mid-15th century in Europe. At the time they were not considered to be great lightning rods of divination. In fact, their original incarnation was in the form of a card game, which went by several names: trionfi, tarocchi, or tarock. To be fair- games were a very serious business in the age of the Renessaince. The artwork that began to adorn the cards became a point of pride as they made their way across Europe.

When the game traveled to France, the people there were acutely interested in Egyptian and hermetic philosophy and the purpose of the cards began to shift over time. New meanings were ascribed to the illustrations, and the drawings themselves began to change to reflect this thought process. As far as we can tell, some of these earlier iterations were more focused on assisting with inner and personal development as opposed to straightforward fortune telling.

Humans have a stronge desire to make sense of the world that they live in, coupled with an uncanny ability to connect dots where none had previously existed. As time passed and tarot cards became more popular, the narrative attached to them evolved. Authors of the age began to write books and theories about the origins of these divine cards, reinforcing the occult ideas and mystical symbolism painted onto each one. Eliphas Levi wrote The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic in the 1800s; this book is a key piece that led to the modern assumption that tarot had always been tied to the ancient mystical arts around the world, in spite of the lack of true historical documentation.

That being said, there is still a certain allure to the cards that depict the human story so beautifully. The cards portray the characters of our lives- they are full of heroes and villains, successes and failures. Over time they have been given allegorical power that symbolizes our journey from birth to death- adventure, betrayal, love, sacrifice, innocence, and enlightenment. This is where their modern power lies.

I will be honest- I am not the kind of girl who believes that the spirits are whispering to my cards and telling me the secrets of the universe. But I do still fully accept and appreciate that they carry significant power. as I have learned to read them, I have discovered a simple truth: we are all on a journey searching for happiness and enlightenment. The tarot is relatable and vague enough to apply to most situations. What it does is give people permission to view their problems from the safety of a new perspective. You can let your mind wander to what is truly bothering you and glean the meaning that you are looking for. It gives you permission to think and accept the thoughts that you already have buried in your mind. Perhaps you already know that the relationship you are in is toxic to you- the cards help you put those feelings into words. I believe their original use as a tool for self development is still the most accurate one there is.

And, if nothing else, they are a fantastic way to pull a story out of a plot hole you’ve written yourself into. Don’t know what to do with Toby after his shinanigans in chapter three? Pull a card and see what awaits his future. Perhaps it will be a three of swords (heartbreak and betrayal), or the wheel of fortune (aka the karma card), maybe he deserves an eight of cups (leaving the safety of what he knows in search for something better), or, if he’s been really bad, a good ol’ fashioned tower card (a sudden change, the thing that he dreads more than anything coming to pass). The possibilities are truly endless.

So in the spirit of my new certification as a tried-and-true Tarot reader, I decided to do a reading for myself and this blog. It was actually kind of fun. I did a basic 3-card spread (there are literally thousands you can choose from). This is what I got:

Justice in this particular position tells me that there was a large decision in my past that led me to the specific place that I am at in my life. In relation to this blog, the first thing that came to mind was my decision to go back to school full time while attempting to simultaneously work over 40 hours a week, maintaining a fairly busy family/personal life, and still making time to write. It should come as no surprise to anyone (except me) that this plan failed spectacularly. My writing took the biggest hit; I didn’t have the time or the energy after all of my other obligations were done. And while I absolutely loved being back in school, the personal price was too steep. My writing was the way I felt grounded, it filled my soul in a way that nothing else could. Sacrificing that time left me feeling like a rowboat unmoored in the ocean.

It led me directly to card number 2: the five of pentacles. It’s a sad looking card, isn’t it? This one is all about needing help, being down on your luck, and feeling like an outsider. The picture really tells the whole story. That was the very definition of me without my writing. I lost touch with who I was at the moment in my life when I needed it the most. My writing is my soul in physical form; when I sacrificed that I lost the most fundamental part of who I am. I felt one-dimensional, left out of the vibrant colors of my own life. I needed to find my way back.

That desperate need to rediscover my personal joy and creative spirit pushed me right to the final card: the two of wands. This little gem is all about reflection and opportunity. It symbolizes your need to search for the right path to follow. You have the tools and the ability, hell, the world is literally in the palm of your hand. But you have to find your place in this world, you must search for the direction that is calling to you. For me, the answer was simple: find my creativity again, start putting pen to paper and toss these words back out into the world. I missed this, far more than I wanted to admit.

This is the beauty of the cards: they give you the distance you need to admit hard truths. They helped me acknowledge the guilt I felt for abandoning the blog, the fear that paralyzed me these last few months when I couldn’t figure out where to start to get back to it. And the inevitable pride I felt when I finally broke down the wall and took the first step towards myself again- rediscovering the path I never should have left.

The cards may not have told me that the computer was going to crash, but they helped me figure out why I felt like I had crashed. I think I’m okay with that particular plot twist.

Weeds and flowers (the dandelion is stronger than the rose)

We tend to demean the the things that harbor an inner strength we will never be able to touch. We look down on those who remind us that being broken does not mean being defeated, or that being unorthodox does not mean being unwanted. We sneer at the strength of those who do not bend to our will, those brave souls who will never allow the crashing waves to erode them. After all, a dandelion can grow through the cracks in the pavement, and yet we snidely call it a weed.

Did you know that the only difference between a weed and a flower is intention? A weed is something you did not plan- it sprung up of its own accord without apology or permission. A flower, however, was wanted, planted, cared for and nurtured; it was intentionally cultivated. I find it strange that we give such a negative term to these brave little blooms who brazenly display their strength and resilience.

I think I would rather be a dandelion than a rose; in many ways I think that perhaps I already am. I am not conventionally beautiful, no, I have never been guilty of that crime. Nor do I make up for my lack in grace with my winning charm- I am awkward, uncoordinated, too quiet, too loud, too anxious, too serious, too silly, too much of a dreamer, too much of a realist; too much of this and too little of that. And yet here I am, still standing, probably where you didn’t want me to be.

I am not sure who decided that those little yellow buds and delicate wishers were a nuisance instead of something to be celebrated. Surely it was not I; this little girl who proudly plucked and presented the bouquet of sunshine for my mother. Surely it was not her; this woman who would carefully put them in a vase in our kitchen for everyone to see. Perhaps it was those few souls who feared the things that did not need them; a rose will need your guiding hand, your love and attention. But not the dandelion, no, it only needs a little patch to call it’s own and to be left to it’s own devices.

I tend to discover the most beauty in the things I could not plan for, the moments that sprout up unannounced and unexpected into my life. There is no edge of anticipation to taint them, no expectation to warrant disappointment. My favorite moments in life were ‘dandelion’ moments; unexpected, perhaps occasionally unwanted, and yet they brought color to a drab world. My writing is like a dandelion- these words that color my soul, though they were not planned, not thought out, not properly executed. They were not the career that I had spent years attempting to cultivate. They simply existed, always right there, surviving when nothing else could.