Me and My Shadow

photograph by Denis Sinyakov

Walking with my dog, Lilly, in the sunshine this week, I noticed our shadows strolling in front of us … attached… dark faceless companions paving our way. I began to reflect on the word ‘shadow’ and how it’s been showing up in my life recently, nudging me cunningly.

Only a few days ago while purging clutter in my garage, I stumbled across an old diary entry from my sophomore year, bemoaning a night out with a friend.

 “She gets so much attention. I always feel like I’m in her shadow…”

It was a familiar story and one I told myself for years. It went something like this:

Once upon a time there was a little girl with crossed eyes and thick-rimmed glasses. She felt she could never compare to the beautiful princesses and queens surrounding her, so she lived in their shadows instead. She wrote in the darkness. She avoided the light, closing her eyes from the glare of the golden tiaras that sparkled brightly around her…

The thing about that story is that it was destined to end sadly, until I made the decision to alter it. I knew I couldn’t change the beginning, but I could affect the middle and the end. I could create fresh dialogue and play with new themes. I could step cautiously out of the shade cast by others and get to know my own shadow instead.

We all can.

Carl Jung, who explored the concept of the ‘shadow’ and how it relates to the human psyche, wrote in 1946 “The man who recognizes his shadow knows very well that he is not harmless…”

Shadow aspects of self are dark and dank. They reside in the mouldy basement of our unconscious where ill wishes and self harm fester and breed. Like a viscous dog foaming at the mouth, our shadow aspects are just waiting to be cruel, and that ferocity is as easily directed inwards as it is outwards.

Once I started examining my own shadow, rather than living in the confines of other people’s, I began to understand my spiteful urge to blame others for my lack of momentum. It was a valuable insight.

Self-sabotage can become addictive until you wrangle it with your awareness. Confronting your shadow head on can diminish its powers – like Dorothy throwing a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West, there may be momentary triumphs when we watch our shadows shrivel.

But unlike the witch, our shadows will never completely vanish. They are licensed to linger.

Coming to terms with our darkest aspects means accepting their presence rather than imagining we can permanently enforce their absence.

Like the prolonged political promise to ‘wage a war on terror’, the battle is one that will never ultimately be won, because wherever there is lightness, darkness is not far away. It is an age old, archetypal, unsettling truth.  The two are inextricably linked.

So drink up the darkness. Walk with your shadow and become familiar with its wily ways. You’ll be surprised how many tales you both have to tell…

 

Write for ten minutes on the word ‘shadow’

or

Give your shadow a voice. Create a dialogue between the dark aspects of your self and the lighter elements. What needs to be said? Who is louder? How could you introduce more equilibrium? If your shadow was an animal what would it be?

Let’s uncover these demons… gather them together here…

 

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Ready, Steady, Write #22

Reflect on this image

Notice what comes into your mind…

a story? a poem? a memory? a stream of thoughts?

Pay attention to the texture of your emotions

focused and blurred

Write for ten minutes

Share your response to the prompt

(before you press submit comment, please click on the requested fruit and help me keep up the fight against spam!)

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Something New

I learned something new last week. Stand-up paddleboarding. It’s one of those beguiling activities I’ve admired from afar and thought to myself that it looked simple enough. Not much to it. Stand. Paddle. Glide across the surface of the water looking elegant. Engage your core. Appear serene, cool and unruffled. It was catalogued in my brain as one of those things I might try one day. When I had the time.

And then suddenly I had the time. Or should I say the time had me.

Saying no to the invitation to learn would have been a red flag. Flapping in the wind. Reminding me that I’m not taking as many risks as I am continually urging my readers to take. Expose your self! Write when you don’t feel like it! Be honest! Stop waiting! Be spontaneous! Try something that makes you sweat!

PADDLEBOARD!

And so I pull on my board shorts and I follow my eleven year old daughter down the dock at the marina (“If I’m  trying it, Mum – you’re trying it too!)

I listen attentively as the super chilled out instructor talks us through positions, launching and how to hold your paddle. I feel momentarily confident. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I fall in?  I get wet? Big deal.  All great lessons involve failed attempts.

And then my husband makes a crack about teaching me to ride a bike when I was twenty. The instructor probably thinks he’s joking.

He’s not.

I laugh along, but inside I cower.

Inside I’m fourteen again. Freshman year school trip in Yosemite National Park. Surrounded by 80 new faces. The first activity of the week is a cycle ride across the valley. The humiliating memory washes over me like a polluted wave. How do I explain that I’ve reached the 9th grade and I  still don’t know how to ride a bike? How do I make adequate excuses for my uncoordinated body? My fear of falling? My stubborn certainty that I am weird? Incapable?

I try and kick the memory to the curb. I try to forget my fourteen year old self who couldn’t cycle, and my twenty year old self who struggled trying. But even as I crawl tenatatively onto the board from the dock, my younger selves sit on the side in the sunshine, their legs dangling in the water. They’re not going anywhere. They look concerned because they know today I am a mother. Today I need to be a role model.

I glance at my daughter who is also floating on her knees, silently trying to summon her brave self. Her father and her cousin, seasoned boarders, are offering advice, but I have a feeling she is waiting for me.

It’s time to stand up. It’s time to balance. It’s time to try something new.

At this point my head is determined to be a grown-up, but my knees are stuck in the past. My knees refuse to cooperate as I ease myself into a standing position. They wobble. They tremble. They violently shake. If they had words, they would be yelling “Go back to solid ground. This is not for you. You’re going to make a fool of yourself!”

I look over at my daughter, who is looking over at me.

“I can’t stand up!” she says. But behind her I see my younger selves who are now standing up, cheering me on, willing me to succeed. “You don’t have to be like us!” they say. ‘You don’t have to stay the same forever.”

And I hear them.

And I begin to calm down.

And I listen to the instructor who seems to have been born gliding on the water. And his voice makes me feel safe. And my knees get with the program. And eventually I stand with more stability. And I paddle. And I’m still shaking but he tells me that’s normal. And in this moment I like the word normal, even though I have recently been wrestling with it.

And when I look over at my daughter she is standing too. Paddling with magical ease. Smiling at a sea lion.

I turn to thank my younger selves but they have disappeared.  I guess they knew their job was done.

So I just keep paddling. Feeling serene, cool, unruffled. Enjoying the light glinting on the water. Marvelling at how poessesive our pasts can be if we allow them to grip us too tightly, and celebrating the joys of learning something new.

Write for ten minutes using the words Something New as a springboard.

or

Reflect on past experiences that hinder your present. Can you loosen your grip on the past and keep growing? Keep going…

If you are reading this on email, go directly to the website to leave a comment or post a response…

 

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Let’s Be Honest

Honesty can burn your tongue. Like slurping a hot soup infused with chilies, the aftermath can sting. Especially when you have been brave enough to speak a truth that feels easier to conceal. But honesty can also rejuvenate. It can be utterly refreshing – like a tall glass of lemonade crowded with ice cubes.

Well timed honesty can hit the spot.

I’ve noticed recently that over the years I have become quite adept at avoiding being honest. I’m quick footed, leaping swiftly over bulky boulders of truth in order to dodge the fall out. But there is a price to pay for circumventing these rocks, rather than standing upon them, feeling the stone beneath my feet, and declaring, “This is what I need to say…”

So I’m beginning the climb.  And I’m starting with myself. Gradually confronting blemishes I have been concealing for years.

First on my list : admitting when I am wrong.

Last night I bellowed at my teenage son for no particular reason, except maybe that I was releasing the frustrations of the day. He was tired and hurt.

Thinking back – everything I said to him was an attempt to be right. To sound as if I held the power. To let him know that I had all the answers.

An hour later I lay in bed calming down and decided to be honest with myself. I admitted  that I was wrong to bark at him. I told myself a painful truth. He’s growing up. He’s slipping away from me (as he should) and my tirade was an attempt to remain loud in his life. I don’t want to be disregarded or forgotten, so I tried to get in his face, to remind him that I’m in the control tower. An impressive illusion.

Being honest with myself helped me to focus on what I do need to do to remain pertinent in my son’s life.

I need to back off.

I need to be present but not pushy.

I need to love him quietly and allow him the space to come towards me.

Hmmm… the sweet cooling sensation of lemons after the bite of chili.

Next on the menu is being honest with other people. I tasted that one this morning when I served up a flavourful apology to my son.

He gulped it down gratefully.

Onwards…

Shall we work on this together? Write for ten minutes using the word ‘honesty’ as a springboard. What have you been hiding from yourself or someone else? What stifled truth needs some air?

 

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Some Like it Hot

Someone close to me went to an earth shift sweat lodge this week. It sounds uncomfortable doesn’t it? Apparently it is. This isn’t a luxury, sanitized sauna at a four-seasons resort. This is the real deal. You and twenty other people cram shoulder to shoulder into a tent, low to the ground, where you sit on the soil amongst hot burning rocks for two hours.

In the dark.

Dripping ceaselessly.

Confronted by reluctance. Fear. Resistance. Anxiety. And eventually surrender.

And when you surrender – that’s when the good stuff apparently starts happening. That’s when you feel reflective. Resilient. Courageous. Cleansed.

Anyway – that’s what I’ve been told. Which is a very different experience to trying it out myself.

Think about how often  we are ‘moved’ by another person’s story? Moved to tears. Moved to smile. Moved to consider.

Being moved is a valaubale resposnse but also a sedenatry one. Feeling something deeply doesn’t always lead to allowing that feeling to propel you.

Now think about how often you ‘move’ after being impacted by something you’ve heard or read? Move to to contribute. Move to change something in your world. Move towards participation.

You might well be intrigued by someone else’s life experience but if that intrigue doesn’t lead to inspiration, and that inspiartion doesn’t lead to action, then all it remains to be is – someone else’s experience.

Am I proposing that we all squeeze into a hot tent? No. But I am suuggesting that we become more open to being affected by other people’s lives. I am suggesting that we pay closer attention to what ‘moves’ us and then make a move in return.

I personally was fascinated by the idea of the sweat lodge. It left me pondering how much time and money and energy we expend in the developed world keeping ourselves ‘comfortable’ when there is much to gain from being confronted by discomfort. Whether that discomfort be awkwardness, anxiety, fear, trepidation.

It’s essential every once in awhile to drag ourselves out of our element and exist in a place that feels too hot or too scary or too new.

Staying safely cocooned leads to apathy. Not only apathy towards events in the world around us, but apathy towards ourselves. A numb sense of disconnection. Distance from the potential to truly and profoundly grow.

The ‘movement’ I’m imagining can be any size and take any shape.

  • Tackling a conversation you’ve been avoiding.
  • Taking steps towards launching a new project.
  • Signing up for a class or a workshop.
  • Trying something you don’t think you can do.
  • Volunteering at an organization that you believe in.
  • Beginning a diet or an exercise program.

It doesn’t really matter what it is.

Just as long as it makes you sweat.

Write about discomfort. What is it you need to do at this point in your life that will bring sweat and growth?  Remember it doesn’t have to be huge. Baby steps count too. Perhaps posting something here on Write To Be You can be your first attempt at sweating. Does writing make you uncomfortable? Post anonymously. Try it…

OR

Write for ten minutes about something you DON’T want to write about. Face the discomfort. Burn it or tear it up afterwards if you feel the need to.

 

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Play Me, I’m Yours

I was in London last month visiting my ‘other’ home. I arrived feeling dislocated.  It’s an odd sideways movement returning to a place where you have left roots. A place where  you have made memories… sweet and bitter, clear and fuzzy, quiet and loud. When I land at the airport I feel like explaining myself. I want to pause at the passport control and tell them my story.

“I’m both you know. British and American. I have an American passport but a British accent. I’m double sided. Split. Torn in two. I was born here. Have lived in both places. I am always questioning where I belong.”

I wonder if they would listen – momentarily intrigued by the chance to see me as dimensional, rather than a flat document needing to be stamped.

So often we bypass opportunities to hear people’s stories. To colour in their outlines. To add flesh to their bones. I can think of too many occasions where I have met someone in a social situation, and even though I have asked numerous questions expressing a genuine interest in who they are, I am met with indifference. They show no curiosity. Ask nothing about me.

Sometimes we become so bound up in our own head space that we forget to look outward. We forget how nourishing and surprising it can feel to make connections.

During my trip to London, a friend and I set off optimistically with our daughters for a walk on Hampstead Heath. The sun above our heads was daring us to peel to off layers and believe we could be warm. But within minutes of embarking on our jaunt – the heavens cracked open and drenched us through and through. There was nowhere to hide. The four of us huddled together on a nearby bench under two small umbrellas for almost an hour. We shared biscuits and gave in to the absurdity of an English July, growing wetter by the second. When the rain finally let up and we stood up, a rainbow etched itself onto the sky and I knew the afternoon would remain vivid in my memory, even more so than if it had been a simple, sunny picnic.

As we made our way back to our cars we passed a piano in the park. Recently pianos have been dotted across the city of London with signs inviting people to ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’. They even come with piano ponchos to protect them from showers.

My eleven year old daughter took up the invitation. She carefully removed the dripping plastic cover, sat down underneath the rainbow and played ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay — the smile on my friend’s four year old’s face was priceless. I stood transfixed by the magic of the moments unfolding — knowing that the outing was transforming into a story I would always want to tell.

An older man on his bike stopped to listen too and when my daughter finished, he took over, playing an enthusiastic rendition of a Bee Gee’s song. He told us of his frequent visits to the piano in the park. He told us about the others who gathered around him each time for a ‘sing-a-long’.

We became threads linking each other together.

Whoever it is who came up with the brilliant idea of putting pianos in public spaces is a genius. I’d like to write them a thank you letter and tell them how grateful I am that they understand the value of connection. The pianos are providing the gift of a story… a story told through hundreds of notes played in countless configurations daily. These instruments, bared to the elements, hold chapters of lives lived in sudden unexpected bursts of creativity. They are bringing people into contact. Encouraging expression. Allowing strangers to seem less strange.

I only wish they had thought to place a piano in Heathrow airport. At the front of the queue . A welcome distraction while we all wait to be stamped.

Write about an unexpected interaction or connection. Curiosity about others fuels our writing lives. Pay attention. Don’t pass up a chance to ‘Play Me.’

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Welcome to Wavering

There’s a distinct difference between writer’s block and writer’s blah.

Writer’s block is dense. Brick. Concrete. Slab.

Writer’s blah is foggy. Murky. Swampy. Slump.

Writer’s block is hard to miss. It’s the desolation of a blank page. A flashing cursor taunting you. A pen frozen in your hand.

Writer’s blah on the other hand is more deceptive. The words come but they arrive tangled or flat. They crowd your brain pressuring you to create some sort of tasteful order.  Or they plod onto the page lumpily like small farting creatures sticking out their tongues.

Either way you feel cheated.

You reminisce about past words which flowed from you organically. You become nostalgic as your mind drifts back to the poem you wrote in the fourth grade – the one that earned you three shiny stickers and the round face with the black smile.

When I come up against both block or blah, I have a tendency to lean into ‘what’s the point?’.  It’s a well worn phrase in my repertoire.  If I repeat it enough times ‘what’s the point?’ grants me permission to walk away. To stop trying. To stop struggling. To take myself out of the running.

And my god – that feels like sweet relief.

But the feeling is short lived.

Very soon after, I start prodding myself. Sticking insults like old, rusty pins into the tender lining of my soul.

“Idiot – you always give up.”

“You never follow through.”

“You’re hopeless.”

And so the cycle begins. And the cycle is not only vicious, but cunning. It provides no obvious escape route.

If I write – I’m rubbish.  If I don’t  write – I’m rubbish times two.

I’d love to come up with some perky quotes to help us all through the block and the blah. But if you’re looking for perky quotes – Write To Be You is not your destination. I could hop onto Instagram or Pinterest and design a motivational banner, declaring in a curly font that GIVING UP IS NOT AN OPTION!

But truthfully – we all know that giving up is an option. We get hurt. Or tired. We lose focus. And that’s normal.

In the midst of Olympic mania, I  notice a feeling of inadequacy in the face of  extraordinary human beings who push themselves to inhuman limits in order to compete.

Watching a long distance run event this week, I was more captivated by an athlete who strayed off the track halfway through the race than I was by the winners. I felt an urge to find that runner. To give her a hug. To gently wipe her tears and tell her that it’s okay to cry.

Being human involves trying and failing. Giving up and getting up. Banging against blocks and battling the blah.

It involves wavering – finding yourself on the side of the track when just a moment before you were running the race.

So what is the Point?

I can’t say I have any idea… but I do know that writing, even when it’s the last thing in the world I feel like doing, helps me to make some meaning of that eternal unanswerable question.

Are you familiar with asking yourself ‘What’s the point?’ Write about blocks and blah. Write about giving up or getting up or both. Write a response to this post – even if you don’t want to. Notice the resistance and write anyway.

 

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“You Got the Part!”

When I was just married, I was known to spend hours in a galactic tailspin in the supermarket. I felt as if I had been launched into an unknown universe, punctuated with beckoning aisles, lurking black holes waiting to suck me into the vortex of indecision.

I hated all the choice.

I second guessed every item I picked up. I browsed for far too long, lingering on inconsequential decisions which I imbued with intense hues of vibrant importance.

Fusilli or rigatoni?

Barlotti or garbanzo?

1% or 2?

I studied packages and boxes and cans looking for answers- as if I was scouring dusty volumes of ancient poetry searching for wisdom. Instead I was confronted with confusion and long lists of ingredients – a litany of preseravites that would never know how to protect me. I wanted to be a confident shopper. I wanted to be focused and intentional. With a meal planner. And a talent for cooking. And a special intuition which would guide me to the just ripe fruit and the organic cashews spiced with chili and mint.

But I usually left Sainsburys an hour and half later, burdened with two or three bags of ready cooked meals, a few apples, a punishing headache and a depression that weighed down upon me like a heavy dark cloak.

I remember glancing around the parking lot at other women, balancing babies and full shopping trolleys. Getting on with it. Coping. And I thought to myself. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be normal??

I had been asking myself that question since I was a kindergartener with big glasses, skirting the fringes of groups. It was one I continued to ask myself as a teenager – an English girl in an American high school fidgeting to fit in. It would be a question I would ask myself as a new mother struggling to breast feed a baby who had other interests in mind. But when I was 25 and recently married, I was simply trying to decipher how to be a wife. I knew how to write poetry and lose myself in a book and develop black and white prints in a handmade dark room. I knew how I wanted to love and how I wanted to be loved.

I knew how to be a dreamer. A walker. A hand holder. A sister. A daughter.

But how to be wife stumped me. I wasn’t looking exactly to fit into a traditional mold, but I was looking to begin providing something I felt should come with the territory. Nourishment. Clarity. If I couldn’t manage in the supermarket how was I going to navigate this new grown-up role? The role I had auditioned for and then readily accepted the part?

The truth is – life allows us to play hundreds of different roles, but often we don’t meet our own unrealistic expectations informed by a myriad of influences, so we end up asking ourselves where did we go wrong? We end up feeling like we have been miscast in our own stories….

We hang onto the word ‘normal’ like it is a lifeline, when in actuality it can be a noose with the power to suck the breath out of us. Let’s re-imagine normal with a million different definitions. Every flavor on the shelf. Every taste imaginable.

18 years have passed since those first supermarket space travels. Do I still compare myself to my fantasy of others? I do. But I realize now – it is just a fantasy, and one that only comes to life when I give it oxygen. Those same women in that parking lot all those years ago might well have had their own fantasies about me – carefree, with a light load and long blonde hair.

Little did they know.

We’re all playing parts and wondering if the rest of the cast have a better handle on their lines.

I’d like to believe it’s never too late to re-write the script….

Write about he roles you play or the ones you would like to play or the ones you have grappled with. Do you struggle with comparing yourself to others? Use the word ‘normal’ as a springboard and jump…

Share your findings in the comments!

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Image

Ready, Steady, Write #21

Pause

Breathe

Write about the Light

Share in the comments

Wait Here

I’ve been sitting here for a while now pondering the blank screen. It’s not a comfortable feeling – waiting. But it’s also not an unfamiliar one. I feel like I spend a lot of life waiting. Waiting for the oven to pre heat. Waiting for the traffic to move. Waiting to hear back from someone about something. Waiting for the result. Waiting for my toenail polish to dry. Waiting for  my vitiligo to spread. Waiting for that sinking feeling. Waiting for my ‘aha’ moment. Waiting to  visit the places that I’ve left behind. Waiting to take my own advice.

When I was teenager I used to wait for the phone to ring. Actually, looking back, I understand that I was waiting to become a grown-up, a woman, a lover, a writer. I was waiting for life.

It’s tedious isn’t it, this waiting for life to happen?

And it’s hard to avoid. How do we reconcile our expectations of what we imagined might happen with the reality of what is happening? How do we push ourselves out of the waiting room and into the world?

Fifteen years ago I had a book published. it was a children’s picture book which took me no more than a few hours to write. The story arrived inside of me like a sudden gift. It landed elegantly whole, not in splinters or fragments like stories sometimes do. It was the tale of a puppy called Charlie, who was searching for an owner. He was so determined to find the ‘perfect’ owner that he put an ad in the newspaper with a checklist of his criteria (he was a very enterprising puppy).

And then he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

While he was waiting, he discovered a true friend and companion who lived next door. While he was waiting he began to live.

The book, to my surprise, performed very well when it found its way out of my head and into the bookstores. It was reprinted. It was translated. It was nominated for awards. It was selected by the ‘selectors’ as something special.  I thought getting the book published meant that MY waiting was over. I assumed it meant that the career I had been searching for had begun.

I was wrong. And right.

It had begun but the waiting never ended. And a ‘career’ is not one neatly wrapped story, tied with a purple and green polka dotted bow. For some of us, a career is an unwieldily package. Sharp cornered. Taped tightly. Tough to get into to. Sometimes it is even too heavy to pick up and shake, preventing us from flirting with the fantasy of what it might contain.

I never had another book published. Not for lack of trying. I tried. Not a hundred times, but I tried. I waited in vain for that box to find me again. The one with with satin ribbon and the soft cotton bedding, cradling the diamond. But now I’m taking an ironic page from my own book. I’m channeling Charlie and paying some attention to what is vs.what if.

I’m becoming rather fond of  the ungainly weather worn parcel with the tattered bottom. I’ve learnt the value in hacking away at various corners revealing curious glimpses into what just might be inside. I’m actively practicing patience, which requires a lot more productive energy than sitting around and tapping the table top.

And fifteen years on, publishing is no longer dependent on endless waiting. So I’m here, writing, because the only thing my words depend on – are me.

Write for ten minutes about the word ‘waiting’. What are you waiting for? Is there an area of your life where you can stop waiting and take back some power instead?

OR

Write a fictional piece with the theme of ‘waiting’. This could be the beginning of something longer. A character sketch. An outline. An opening paragraph. Anything! Don’t wait… Just write!

 

 

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